The arguments about this fiercely selfish project began as the news escaped like bad gas from the New York City manholes. The arguments will only heat up now that everyone can finally hear it.
Great rock art is always transgressive, of course. How many Lou Reed and Metallica fans will see this as a simple rule violation, and how just plain wrong, will hover over real music like a cloud of flies.
The basic outline is as follows: Reed wrote lyrics inspired by a late 19th and early 20th century play by German expressionist Frank Wedekind: earth spirit and Pandora’s box. Published in 1895 and 1904 respectively and set in Germany, Paris and London in the 1890s, the stories revolve around Lulu, a magnet for the suffocating desires, indirect love and unhindered abuse of all men who fall on him. Until, finally, left “with no real feelings in my soul”, she meets Jack the Ripper, whose “love” turns out to be the greatest and most fatal of all.
Metallica has attempted to provide the musical meditations that accompany it at the bottom of the river, subsuming its own musical identity in order to deliver what guitarist Kirk Hammett has called “a new animal”. Something like a big black dog, maybe, that whines, scolds, bites and shits in places you really wish it hadn’t. Then start again to annoy you.
But is it good, you ask? In a word, is it rock? The answer would be, well, yes and no. Fans of traditionalist metal will be disappointed. Because it is clear from the opening of the track Brandenburg Gate floats like a fog – Lou gets right to the point: ‘I would cut off my legs and my breasts / When I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski‘- that this is not an album made for the’ average ‘rock fan. Or like Reed growls in View: ‘I wanna make you doubt / Every sense you collected‘. The cumulative weight of this album will definitely do it for you.
Some may find the trance-like atmosphere of much of the music disorienting morbid, even repulsive. And it won’t do any good to say it’s intentional. The nausea of ââpieces like Little dog (‘A puny body and a small cock / small dog can make you sick‘) is so tangible that many will wonder why they even listen to this. For others though – not just the die-hard Reed accustomed to his self-loathing, his bitter black words, his almost youthful desire to say the unspeakable – the underlying beauty of what these artists, on paper , such disparate ends of spectrum rock trying to convey will be breathtaking.
These are not individual pieces, although there are immediately several highlights like the chilling Pumping blood, whose insane violins recall street hassle-ere Reed before building for several minutes like a pendulum to a full hearing assault the size of Metallica. This is the overall piece. A conceptual work that needs to be absorbed as a whole to even start breaking through its sonic buttresses, at 90 minutes and more, it’s not exactly an iPod-friendly trip.
Unless, maybe, you’re horizontal by the time you get to the final track Daddy junior, the last 12 of his breathtaking 19 minutes submerged by waves of drones reminiscent of John Cale’s viola, Nico’s harmonium and the magnificent bass wash and neo-orchestral harmonic effects of Cliff Burton on instrumentals like Orion.
Reed built a career based on the hope that, as he puts it, “the intelligence that once inhabited novels and movies would ingest rock.” But while his best work, with and without the Velvet Underground, has always benefited from this creative impetus, he has skated so close to self-parody so many times, his energy has often dissipated, as fine and hollow as the mocking sneer. which seems to hover over his work.
This is where Metallica comes in. A truly clubbable rock band – as opposed to the hard-hired hands that Reed has spent the past 40 years working with – what they bring to the party is pure fire without irony; a fist of fury to replace the limp wrist.
It makes for an absolutely overwhelming combination. You were warned.
This review originally appeared in Classic Rock in October 2011.