Though “Lulu” (Warner Bros.), their first studio collaboration, is a work that invites derision, an album that wallows in a tarpit of ugliness, anybody who has followed the careers of its makers shouldn’t be too surprised. They’ve both gone off the deep end before, though never quite so spectacularly.
Reed infamously made “Metal Machine Music” in the ‘70s, a double-album of feedback that was interpreted as a joke, a provocation or a horrible mistake. His “Berlin” song cycle from the same decade was dismissed as depraved and depressing. In the ‘80s he tried to do a rap song (“The Original Wrapper”) that was closer in spirit to Weird Al Yankovic than KRS-One, and in 2000 he released an 18-minute orgy of gore, deviant sex and convulsive noise about a marsupial (“Like a Possum”). His 2003 two-CD retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” teemed with monologues, musical fragments and a handful of actual songs. He broke up his headlining set at Lollapalooza in 2009 with a 15-minute tsunami of static, a gleefully extreme exercise that punctuated Reed’s inability to play nice even as it sent many in the crowd streaming to the trees for cover.
Metallica alienated its hardcore fans by wrestling with a ‘90s identity crisis and refashioning itself as an alternative-rock band, reworked its music with a symphony orchestra, released a 2003 album (“St. Anger”) with a defective drum sound and lyrics that sounded like a cry for help, and financed and released a damning and unintentionally comical documentary (“Some Kind of Monster”) detailing the quartet’s internal squabbling and desperation.
In theory, the notion of rock stars taking sometimes ridiculous chances with their music has appeal. And some of the work cited above did have a payoff. Reed’s “Berlin” is masterful, and his Lollapalooza performance demanded a reaction, good or bad, amid a sea of pandering. Metallica’s “St. Anger” and “Some Kind of Monster” at least qualify as brutally transparent self-portraits. But the worst of Reed and Metallica is unlistenable.
Which brings us to “Lulu.” Even against that backdrop of ignominy, this “Loutallica” Frankenstein stands alone. It all began innocently enough. After performing together briefly in 2009, Reed and Metallica agreed to further collaborate. Reed eventually suggested recording songs he was developing for the “Lulu Plays,” a production by playwright Robert Wilson that interprets the century-old work of German expressionist Frank Wedekind about the horrible, short life of an abused dancer.
This sort of subject matter is nothing new for Reed, who has been on intimate terms with transgression since he wrote Velvet Underground classics such as “Heroin,” “Sister Ray” and “Venus in Furs.” He created a poetic lexicon of violence, perversion and suffering unequaled in rock. If nothing else, his work reminds us that society’s most misshapen misfits are humans too, for better or worse, and his empathy for these characters, his refusal to judge or dismiss them, is what puts his work in the discussion not just with the greatest songwriters, but literary visionaries such as Nelson Algren and William Burroughs.
Yet his lyrics for “Lulu” verge on self-parody, a series of blunt objects that make “Saw IV” seem nuanced and humane. The album opens with a description of sexual mutilation so vivid it can’t be reprinted here, and the trail of depravity deepens with each song. “Use a knife on me!” “Blood spurting from me!” Reed croaks. “I beg you to degrade me/Is there waste that I could eat?” “I puke my guts out at your feet.” “Why do I desecrate me?” “Pathetic little dog.”
The graphic images are tied to equally dismal, unrelenting music. Metallica settles into dirge tempos, one-chord stomps or monotone ambiance in tracks that stubbornly overstay their welcome. The 10 songs weigh in at 87 minutes, and with the exception of “Iced Honey” and “The View,” they offer little in the way of melody or anything resembling a chorus.
There’s a sliver of tenderness in the first few minutes of “Junior Dad,” Reed’s voice dropping to a near whisper as the narrator tries to cope with “the greatest disappointment” over a glimmer of guitar melody and slow, steady drums. Then the music dissolves into more than 11 minutes of brain-numbing drone, snuffing out whatever remaining hope of redemption this album might have had.
Given their history, that might be the point.