To the chagrin of much of Metallica’s fan base, the band has recorded an album with Lou Reed. It’s called “Lulu” and it’s based on a pair of plays (known collectively as the “Lulu” plays) written by German playwright Frank Wedekind over a century ago. The songs here were written as sketches by Reed for a theatrical production of the “Lulu” plays.
The experience of listening to “Lulu” revolves around a central conceit: the narrative is told from the perspective of a female protagonist, but the lyrics are delivered in a male voice (Reed’s). If it’s too much for you to handle hearing Reed’s voice reciting lyrics like “I’m just a small town girl” without either breaking into sophomoric giggles or throwing the album in the trash in disgust, then “Lulu” probably isn’t for you. But even for those willing to take that leap of suspension of disbelief, the album still only delivers modest rewards.
The problem with “Lulu” isn’t that it’s too arty or pretentious, or even that Lou Reed and Metallica don’t work well together (they do). The problem is that the album is too vague and sketchy. It comes across more like a demo than a finished album.
Unlike some other rock albums with theatrical leanings, such as the Who’s “Tommy” or even Reed’s own “Berlin,” the lyrics aren’t entirely coherent enough to carry the listener effectively through the plot. It’s almost as if they were written to convey psychological states more than stories, which can obviously be a good thing in rock and roll, but not on a conceptual, narrative-driven album.
Granted, the material here was originally written for a theatrical production, and it’s entirely possible that the songs as they are may be more effective as a part of a film or theatre piece, where visible actors are conveying the story in addition to the lyrics and music. If that were the case, “Lulu” might make a good companion piece. But the material needs more work to be convincing as a standalone album.
As it is, it places too many demands on the listener to make sense of the album, demands that should have been undertaken by the artists. Not taking that extra step in reworking the material comes across as either a rush to get the album recorded or just plain laziness.
It’s a shame, really. Reed has repeatedly proven that he is able to deliver clever and concise sets songs, but he’s also delivered plenty of meandering and/or incoherent material. Unfortunately, “Lulu” seems to be one of the latter and not the former. One can easily imagine Metallica reworking some of his classic material – “Kill Your Sons” would be an obvious choice, and Metallica has covered material in a similar vein before, e.g. Nick Cave’s “Loverman.”
In the end, “Lulu” comes across as something of a missed opportunity. Granted, it’s probably a better album with Metallica than it would have been without them. But it would have been much better if they had either spent more time reworking the material or choosing another project entirely.