As Hallowe'en approaches, so does the impending release of Metallica's new album, Lulu, a double-CD collaboration with venerated legend Lou Reed. As if the pairing of Metallica and Reed wasn't random enough, the album is an adaptation of a trilogy of works by late-19th-century German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind, whose work is perhaps best-known as having inspired the 1929 Louise Brooks vehicle Pandora's Box:
The slow-motion approach of the album (first as a leak of "single" "The View", then as 30-second snippets of every track, then as an eventual streaming-full-album-listen) has allowed metal fans to consider the record's release in much the way Grover saw the final page of The Monster At The End of This Book: a molasses-thick approaching apocalypse, as the former metal titans finally and unequivocally tank their reputation as the top metal band of all time, the Led Zeppelin of their generation, etc etc. Sure, there was the Load/Re-load era, with the matching alt-haircuts; then the Napster period of shame; then St. Anger and the filmed therapy sessions that birthed the album, released as the documentary Some Kind Of Monster. Now, with Lulu, every media outlet (including the reliable metal bullshit detector that is NPR) grimaces with knives out to eviscerate Hetfield and Co. once and for all, marking them as the laughing stock of metal for good.
There's an implicit lesson here, or at least a message being sent to Metallica by those that mock and tease: that the band should cut the shit and start acting like the metal royalty that they are. You know, the way that other more respected elder statesmen do, like Slayer, or Iron Maiden, or Motörhead. What does that mean? Well, it means that Metallica, in the autumn of their years, should (according to this line of thinking) begin to acknowledge their legacy, their fan base, their place in metal's hegemony, and begin the final phase of their career, the part where they dutifully trot out the hits every few years, occasionally releasing albums that nicely fit into their discography. Clearly, Metallica aren't interested in this option.
In an interview with Franco-German TV network Arte, Lou Reed discusses the genesis of the project, and how he approached the band with the question "Are you read to end your career?" Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich convulse with laughter, and Hetfield says "Every album!"
What band says that nowadays? Definitely not any other metal bands -- most metal legends are all too happy to appease their fans, doing whatever it takes to present them with digestible product on the reg. It is usually the domain of "alternative" music to create difficult records that may be indigestible to the general public (the Radiohead Stratagem, or the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Gambit, we'll call it), but there is a noticeable cognitive dissonance with Metallica's actions in the last two decades: ever since their 1991 self-titled album blew up bigger than any metal album in history, the band has done whatever they can to challenge both themselves and their audience. Perhaps it's a product of boredom, or maybe it's the intra-band self-loathing that produced the uncomfortable laughs of their 2004 documentary Some Kind Of Monster, wherein the band, on the verge of collapse, allowed film-makers to hit "record" while they wrung their hands with therapists and producers, spending countless months producing what would eventually become their most unpopular album, the ugly, brutal and outright amateurish St. Anger.
Post-Black Album, Metallica has done their damnedest to dismantle the towering temple of metal radness that is their legacy -- taking the formula of breakneck riffs, forlorn pentatonic classicism and teenage sullenness and injecting it with the most incongruous elements imaginable, just to see what will happen. From the weird country-tinged twang of certain tracks off of '96's Load and '97's Re-load, to the grafted-on symphonic garishness of their 1999 S&M live album, to the detuned screaming muck of St. Anger. Post-1991, every element of their sound has been seemingly at war with the Metallica legacy, whether it's Ulrich's refusal to stick to the full-bore drum attack of the band's classic days, or Hetfield's desire to diverge from his classic wounded howl, or guitarist Kirk Hammett's refusal to play standard metal wah-tinged solos anymore. Fans might think that the band are fucking with them: but it's more like Metallica are fucking with themselves.
Some Kind Of Monster, besides being perhaps the funniest rock documentary of all time, sheds some real insight into the psychology of an enormously successful musical group, especially one slightly past their prime. A key segment involves Lars Ulrich's father, a judgmental character who intimidates his son with both his daunting Nordic facial hair and his casually cruel dismissals of his millionaire son's accomplishments. In this scene, for example, watch around the 2:30 mark as Far Ulrich listens to the spaced-out ambient sounds of a new Metallica track (reportedly written and recorded after the entire band checked out a performance by then-hip-and-new Icelandic droners Sigur Rós) and says "I would say 'delete that'":
Ouch! Not to say that all of Metallica's poor PR decisions spring from not-very-latent daddy issues, but the tension here is undeniable -- and the track in question remains unreleased, perhaps even deleted.
Metallica's success was borne on the wings of teenage dissolution, anger and resentment at life's unfairness. Prior waves on heavy metal were based on a different attitude, a party-hearty credo of metal tribal bonding that featured blatant fantasy (both of the D&D and teenage male sexuality type); Metallica ignored all of that, focusing on the bummer that is one's lot in life. And in stark contrast to the whittle-everything-down-to-the-fast-parts sonic motto of many of their fellow thrashers, Metallica found a way to fuse the light and the dark in their music. It's easy to forget that prior to Metallica's ascendancy, there were two types of heavy metal songs: rockers and ballads.
Classic Metallica tunes like "Damage, Inc.", "Harvester of Sorrow," "Sanitarium," and especially their worldwide late '80s video smash "One," set the blueprint for what the band did best: long, long songs that dynamically shifted from plangent sorrow-laden acoustic moments to ripping thrash, with intermittent solo torrents. In metal at the time, bands would have songs that rocked and ballads that sold millions as singles (and appealed to a female audience, supposedly), and never the two met. Metallica smashed through that barrier and managed to hoover up thrash and hair metal fans by the truckload and make it all make sense. But what those fans perhaps didn't get was that Metallica's musical mashup was at heart experimental, if not outright indulgent, and that those experimental and indulgent tendencies would never go away, especially in a post-Black Album hangover.
Part of the reason that Metallica increasingly has been able to get away with indulging their musical whims is due to the fact that, once they became a dependable brand in terms of selling out enormodomes worldwide, they no longer really relied on albums for income. In 2009, for example, when they released the successful "back to their classic sound" Rick Rubin-produced Death Magnetic, Metallica closed the year out as the 10th biggest money maker in music, roping in over $25 million.
Of that $25 million, though, only $1.6M was from album sales -- the rest was from various income streams having to do with their massively successful world tour. And of that $1.6M, the lion's share came not from sales of Death Magnetic, but from earnings tied to downloads of their 1991 Black Album single "Enter Sandman." The lesson here is clear: it doesn't matter if every music writer, pundit and metal scribe on the planet lashes the band mercilessly for whatever new musical project they choose to embark on; as long as there is a world tour involved that sees them playing the hits, they will still at the end of the day be a massively successful and lucrative metal machine. So, an album with Lou Reed? Sure, why not!
Look at the rabid reception of this year's Big Four shows, both in Europe and in the States -- even with Metallica's reputation in alleged tatters, they still had no problem whatsoever headlining the two biggest metal stadium shows of the year, and could just as easily rule the 2012 tour circuit if they so choose. That is, as long as they don't do something foolish like attempt to play Lulu live... which is exactly what Hetfield is now threatening, having recently told an interviewer on an Argentinian radio "We would love to do some shows [with Reed, performing Lulu live]". Perhaps they could, peppered amidst Lulu tracks, some Velvet Underground gems, like this one, performed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 25th Anniversary show:
This performance, incidentally, is how Reed and the band met, and came up with the idea of the album. The result of this chance meeting is perhaps one of rock's most epic oddities, as Metallica indulge their recent fetish for atmospherics and unsettling non-grooves with Reed's spoken word grump-growl. Lulu is not that different from Reed's 2003 album The Raven, a bloated star-studded double-disc set that saw rock's Poet Laureate attempting, much like the Alan Parsons Project did in 1976, to set the verse of Edgar Allen Poe to music. The result? Well, uh, it's kind of like this:
Wow, right? Viewed in comparison to The Raven, then, the stumbling awkwardness and moments-of-uncomfortable-silence that "mar" Lulu kind of stand as an achievement, a melding of two things that shouldn't work at all. To my ears, it kind of functions in a similar way to a track from noise-trio Shellac's 2007 album Excellent Italian Greyhound, "Genuine Lullabelle," which similarly mixed lyrical ugliness, lurching noise rock, dramatic pauses, scraping terror, and spoken-word banality:
Not to say that Lulu is the most essential music of the year, or that it deserves a place at the winner's circle of Metallica's discography or anything. Although it's clear that the band isn't trying for that -- risking career suicide, they just wanted to see if they could do it, and they did it, and it's every bit as challenging and ugly and compelling as they intended. Moreover, there is even precedent in their career for this sort of collaboration -- back in 1997, they had a minor hit off of their Re-load album with "The Memory Remains," featuring on the chorus the creaky moans of '60s icon Marianne Faithfull. For some reason no one seemed to bat an eye at the oddity of this teamup, perhaps owing to the fact that even with Faithfull's raspy squawk (and I mean that in the best possible sense!) the song manages to be the most concisely rocking moment on the album.
So perhaps Lulu is just "The Memory Remains" writ large, all gross and scarred and bloated. A "fuck you" to their fans? Their label? Their detractors? Themselves? Perhaps it's all of the above, or none -- but if you have even a passing fascination with challenging music, you owe it to yourself to at least give the thing a listen, which you can do right here; it may be the scariest thing you hear this whole season.