Since most Top-40 hits rarely reach for artistic greatness, the most popular music is often thought to be “bad music.” This is not entirely true. Artists like Ke$ha and Katy Perry are certainly vacuous, but they’re more inane than truly bad. Bad music is much rarer, and much more distinctive; one might easily forget the latest generic pop hit, but truly awful music is unforgettable.
“Lulu,” a collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica, is unforgettable. It is wildly absurd and severely misguided. And though it’s tinged with an air of cruel apathy towards the listener, it still manages to be one of the more entertaining albums of 2011. It is bad in an almost hallucinatory sense; listeners may find it difficult to believe what they’re hearing.
Indeed, even on paper the project seems parodic—it can be safely said that no one predicted that Reed, a critical darling best known for his work with the Velvet Underground and for his 1972 solo hit “Walk On the Wild Side,” would make an album with Metallica, a heavy metal band that now threatens its fans with lawsuits rather than lyrics. The entire affair is tinged with an air of the surreal.
That tone is what colors the album and turns “Lulu” into one of the stranger records released thus far this year. Much of this can be attributed to Reed, whose lyrics mix the pretentious and the moronic. He begins the song “Brandenburg Gate” by lazily spitting out the soon-to-be immortal couplet, “I would cut my legs and tits off / When I think of Boris Karloff.” Needless to say, lyrics like this are not quite what his audience is expecting from him; in fact, lyrics like this are not quite what anyone expects to hear on a record. Adding to the strange atmosphere are Reed’s vocal performances, which can most accurately be described as atonal ramblings. Whereas his casual delivery once epitomized cool, now it sounds merely unengaged and lazy, as if this album were just another paycheck. With these subpar lyrics and lackluster tone, Reed has carried amateurism to almost unbelievable levels.
Comparatively, the signature over-the-top nature of Metallica’s instrumentals is less immediately noticeable. Though Reed’s mistakes are central to the record’s failure, the most fatal element of its strained and unreal atmosphere is the lack of interaction between the two artists. “Lulu” is a collaboration in the loosest possible sense. Both Reed and Metallica do appear on this record—usually on the same song. But the artists rarely step outside the boundaries of their established sounds. The album doesn’t feature either Reed shrieking like a heavy metal vocalist or Metallica trying to emulate the proto-punk sound of Reed’s singer-songwriter work. In fact, there is no synthesis or exchange of any sort—instead, the album is mainly composed of songs like the 11-minute “Dragon,” which sounds like a subpar Metallica song over which Reed’s craggy vocals are thrown. Instead of a collaborative work, this comes off as a incongruous mashup. Even worse are the songs where both Reed and Metallica vocalist James Hetfield sing. Their vocal interplay on tracks like “Iced Honey” is so stilted that it’s hard to believe the two were in the studio at the same time. And worst of all are the songs like “Little Dog,” which mainly consists of Reed ranting senselessly over drones and feedback.
All of this would suggest that even if “Lulu” is drivel, it’s drivel of the highest order—much like the film “The Room,” or the fictional musical-within-a-musical from “The Producers,” “Springtime for Hitler.” The album’s problems are so clear and so persistent that it would be very easy for the audience to see “Lulu” as nothing more than a massive joke. That’s certainly possible, as Reed’s phoned-in performance doesn’t imply that he’s artistically invested in the project. If this is the case, it’s a little slimy for Reed and Metallica to sell a deluxe edition that costs over $150—it’s streaming online, and soon enough the best parts will be spliced into an infinity of YouTube clips.