Like an iceberg deciding to start a band with the Titanic, Lou Reed’s team-up with Metallica seemed disastrous from its inception. The only unknown was, how cataclysmic would the collision be? Then bits of the album, Lulu, started to leak. The transcendentally bad snippets dropped hints that Reed’s love of perversity, and Metallica’s love of shooting itself in the foot, had finally reached their respective apotheoses. Now Lulu has arrived in all its malformed glory—but it isn’t the utter wreck everyone expected. Instead, it’s a far more compelling thing: an utter wreck that curiously, miraculously, might have been great.
Lulu’s glimmer of greatness doesn’t show up until the end. But it’s a whopper of a glimmer. The disc’s closer, “Junior Dad,” clocks in at 20 minutes, and not one of them is wasted. Reed has never been shy about elongating slabs of sound until they distort and disintegrate; “Junior Dad,” though, is rambling and cohesive. Metallica—also no stranger to saga-length songs—delivers a nuanced, near-orchestral instrumental that lurches like a thawing glacier. Rather than barking, Reed purrs, and that primordial croon is soothing as much as creepy. It also carries a gut-wrenching, openhearted plea: “Would you come to me? / Would you pull me up? / Would the effort really hurt you?” Metallica’s dark, droning homage to The Velvet Underground is unmistakable—and harrowingly poignant.
The rest of the album isn’t. Let there be no doubt: For the most part, Lulu is barely listenable. Leading up to “Junior Dad” are nine tracks—two of them topping 11 minutes—that feature Reed bleating like a dementia-stricken uncle over his nephews’ numbskull garage band. “The View” is the worst: Reciting what sound like leftover lyrics from 1989’s “There Is No Time,” Reed vomits empty, monochromatic angst over one of the most thread-stripped riffs Metallica has ever peddled—and when frontman James Hetfield pops a vein to growl the chorus, the whole mess collapses. The opener, “Brandenburg Gate,” manages to mash Reed and Metallica into something marginally empathetic, but mostly, the gears just grind. “As long as you could raise that little doggie face / to a cold-hearted pussy / you could have a taste,” Reed slurs in “Little Dog.” Frantically ignoring the crazy crap Uncle Lou is mumbling, Metallica tries to mask the musk of flop-sweat with a blanket of guitar feedback nowhere near as heavy as Reed himself once mustered.
Even at its weakest, Lulu poses intriguing questions about its existence. Did Reed agree to this laughable-on-paper collaboration out of sheer sadomasochism? Did Metallica do it for the money or the cred, neither of which the band needs, or is likely to get from Lulu? Or is it possible that they joined forces out of a hubristic, profoundly clueless urge for artistic exploration, reception be damned? The album’s tone-deaf, ironclad earnestness points toward the last—which renders Lulu not merely a failure, but one of the bravest, most fascinating failures in rock history.