Pazz & Jop 2011: Brad Nelson On Why Lou Reed And Metallica’s Lulu Was 2011’s Best Album


To supplement this year’s Pazz & Jop launch, Sound of the City asked a few critics to expand on the reasonings behind their voting. Here, Brad Nelson talks about the much-discussed collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica, Lulu, which topped his ballot and came in at No. 94 on the albums poll.

In the video we see the four members of Metallica, in autonomous cars, approaching a warehouse in the Bay Area, where (this is the only real narrative to take from the video) Lou Reed is waiting. Lou approaches nothing; he has always been there, in front of a microphone, phasing out of shape. There is not much light but the few spotlights amplify beyond their scope, drawing implications into the face of Lars Ulrich, whose mouth diagonally frames his teeth, always, and the whole skull of James Hetfield, newly dynamic with mohawk. Kirk Hammett’s guitar looks changed in the light, full of grain. They play. They play a lumbering riff, it seems pulled from a subspace. Gravity acts gently there, woozily. Lou speaks, barks, commanding something from afar. They all start to phase, faces play upon faces. Their images shake into each other, confuse features. They are completely fused in spirit. Lou rubs his eyes. Rob Truijillo tosses his long, weighty hair into glossy octagons of light.

This is the Darren Aronofsky-directed video for “The View,” the ostensible single from the recorded exchange between Lou Reed and Metallica called Lulu. People treated Lulu supernaturally when news of it first appeared; when it was released it was the absurd, unapproachable record of the year, roundly panned, roundly existentially questioned. In the Quietus, Julian Marszalek wrote, “We have but a short period on this earth.” It could not sustain Lulu, the indulgence of five men who had advanced into a totally sealed-off sphere. How much of what they did was metal? How much of it followed the track of the Velvet Underground, into an unforming rock? Most declared neither, that Lulu sounded as if two incomplete records had grafted intemperately to each other. I don’t even totally have the words to process it now, even as it tops my Pazz and Jop ballot.

Nitsuh Abebe wrote that the album is “gorgeously recorded,” and he’s right. The guitars are baked in. The cymbals crash through what seems a completely round spectrum. Lou and James lean through the mix and into your personal space, creating a vaguely hostage-type situation. The album was mostly recorded live, as live as possible. Lou could see Lars and James and Kirk during recording, could react to and reinforce them, could pursue what he called in a GQ interview “leakage,” “where Lou and Metallica would sit “in a big circle, sitting and playing,” improvising.

But the effect of the finished mix is actually hyperdistinction. Lou sounds as if in a distant chamber from the band—the Voice‘s own Maura Johnston wrote that “oftentimes the collaborators sound almost deliberately out of sync, a jarringness that’s heightened by Reed’s vocals being so front-loaded in the mix.” For all the potential dissonance, listening to Lulu is a totally lucid experience. The elements honeycomb into sense and meaning, albeit a sense and meaning that is unmistakably its own. You are never lost or unaware of what is happening—very little of Lulu is confusing or disorienting. The constituent parts are kind of unremarkable. There is Lou Reed. There is Metallica. There they are, combining. A few adjustments and you are there with them, purely receiving.

The template: One riff—which, for the most part, traces a previously unknowable middle between the bluesy lowing of Load and ReLoad and the recursive tangles of St. Anger—is decided upon and repeated until it is fabric, until it goes unnoticed. (See: “Mistress Dread,” where thrash and drone meet.) Lou steps in to circle us back into the riff, as one might walk into a fence or brick wall. The lyrics are loudly sexual; they shift invisibly between the titular Lulu and the men she sleeps with, who obsess over her. Between the meanings, there are strange and novel combinations of words: “just-formed angel,” “deepen a curtsy,” “the brain that was once listening, now shoots out its tiresome message.” The record works out its own syntax, resulting in a language of militaristic sexual desire—a sort of I-break-you-down-into-parts hegemony—as well as the unconscious form of it, its submerged tonalities.

Supporters of this album—I’m one, but they exist elsewhere—tend to redefine its parameters, its hard, uninviting edges, as if it would be better understood by a world unprepared for it, tricked into it. They call Lulu a “Lou Reed album,” not a “Lou Reed and Metallica album.” It is not a “rock” or “metal” album; it is something else, probably unnameable. These are knowing and cynical errors on their part. It’s a Lou Reed and Metallica album—the songs are made from a kind of vertical integration where the players communicate through each other to a perceived bottom layer, with the final link in the chain being Lars Ulrich.

Lars’ stiff, immovable drumming is an unrepeatable event, even for himself. The word “ponderous” comes to mind. His style is one of overstatement, even while his drumming is inflexibly linear. These seemingly disparate techniques meet and produce a kind of inertia. Lars brings his arm down as if it is a bowling pin pivoting in a socket, that, untensed, might slip neatly from his side to the floor. His arms don’t yield or snap like arms; they don’t move through the air so much as phase in and out of gravity’s pull. Physics work on him differently. They go variable. As much he is untroubled by groove, neither is he metronomic. He does not keep time because he is not a time keeper. He fills a necessary space—or, rather, he modifies the space itself until it is totally susceptible to his great insane crashing. Lars is the singer; Lou is the drummer. In “Frustration,” the guitars drop vertically from the mix and Lars follows Lou into a dark, uncertain space; Lou leads him there but Lars gives shape to the dark in tense, arrhythmic flashes.

This is where Lou and Metallica, despite appearances, migrate into new spaces. The record ha other indefinite moments; they slip almost wholly into entropy. “Little Dog,” which is all unconnected acoustic guitar figures, is like witnessing a song being uncreated. “Pumping Blood” reinvents itself anxiously, with long, shapeless parts between riffs. Sometimes the record is just a mass of tangles, like the beginning of “Dragon,” where, I don’t know, something ugly happens in a sacrificial way.

The final minutes of “Junior Dad” are something else. The first eight are a sort of unmoored, exploratory Metallica—circling constellations of guitar, an extra two beats in each measure, Lou reacting to Metallica,. Then, suddenly, neither is even there. A string section of indeterminate number plays along a thin neural path, seemingly playing the same notes even as they shift into unknown space. “There’s this final push Metallica makes,” Lou says, “and then it’s like the earth opens up and you go ‘Ahhh.’… It’s not that Metallica isn’t there; they’re very much there.”

Even containing these dissolved passages, though, Lulu is a rock album. It’s a metal album. Or, maybe, rather, Lulu engages with rock and metal even as it doesn’t have much to say about either. Lou and Metallica aren’t necessarily connected by shared work or a purity of genre; what connects them is a spiritual determinism. “We’ve carved the same path,” Lars told GQ. “Lou’s lived in his own bubble for four decades; we’ve lived in our bubble for three decades… I can’t think of anybody that’s more suited to each other than these two musical entities.”

It’s funny. Of course it’s funny. Lou knows it’s funny. The members of Metallica are a curiously unselfconscious bunch, but they have been dropped precariously into this improvisational setting, where the inability to perceive human galaxies beyond their own—where Kirk is a conduit for any unspoken aggression between Lars and James, two meticulous composers who have a wavering engagement with reality, and bassist Robert Trujillo must play exclusively in and around a dead zone—doesn’t register or develop totally in the music. Lulu is what results.