Ever since she first appeared on the stages of German theatres at the turn of the twentieth century, Lulu has created controversy. Frank Wedekind’s Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and its sequel Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box), with their depiction of prostitution, lesbianism and raw sexuality, outraged their first audiences. As did W G Pabst’s silent film adaptation of the second of these plays in 1929, not just because it offended the morality of the day, but also because it seemed so disconnected and obtuse. Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, fully written but not fully orchestrated upon the composer’s death in 1935, but completed some forty years later from the very extensive sketches Berg had left, still empties auditoriums with its atonal attacks.
And then there’s the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration, released a few weeks ago. Neither Lou Reed nor Metallica are unfamiliar with bad reviews, nor are their fans unfamiliar with the feeling that their idols have abandoned them. But not since Metal Machine Music for Lou Reed, and never for Metallica, has the response, from public and critics alike, been so resoundingly negative as it has for Lulu.
It some ways, it’s easy to see why. Lulu doesn’t sound much like anything else that either Lou Reed or Metallica have done. Reed barks his way through the album’s ten songs, the lyrics sounding as haggard and hacked as the voice itself. Metallica deliver heavy half-formed jams from squalid basements rather than the gymnastic black brilliance that twists and turns its way through so much of their earlier work.
But Lulu is not Transformer, nor is it Master of Puppets. It’s Lulu – a cabaret dancer who femme-fatales and fucks her way through weak men and rich men, through high life and low life, through lesbians, artists, schoolboys and princes, until she meets her end in the back lanes of London at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Men see her as the source of their destruction but always, and ultimately, they are the ones who destroy her. The world in which she lives, from her luxurious
Paris home to her fetid garret, is shabby, dim and dank. London
This is the world in which you have to be ready to be immersed when you listen to Lulu. In fact, you would probably like it a whole lot more if you read Wedekind’s plays, or saw Pabst’s film, or heard Berg’s opera, or even if you wandered through the London alleyways or somehow found your way into the German nightclubs of a century ago, than if you tried to ease yourself into it through the more celebrated albums of either of its procreators.
Lulu tells its story pretty much in the third person – with Reed himself taking on much of her part throughout the album. It makes a kind of sense, given Lulu’s alienation from the world around her, and from the people who inhabit it. She is always seen through the eyes of others and that’s how this album tells her tale. It’s a brutal, unkempt tale, rough and unpalatable, unattractive and alluring, seductive even with its gaping sores and scabs. But the ugliness is not hers, it’s the people telling her story.
The feeling that we are being told a story begins with the album’s opener, ‘Brandenburg Gate’ with its acoustic, almost fireside introduction of scrambled reminiscences. But then the metal smashes in and Metallica’s wall of iron imprisons the story, letting in hardly a chink of light for the rest of the album’s almost 90 minutes.
But that’s where this story belongs – held captive, yet attracting and repelling its captors, to paraphrase ‘The View’, the album’s second track and its first single.
The result is that the music always has a kind half-stifled, half-defiant, edginess to it – a caged wild animal, subdued, yet wily enough to entice you to within striking distance.
While the heavy barrage of Metallica guitars is an imposing backdrop for Lulu, this is really Lou Reed’s album. Metallica are playing his music, not theirs. The lyrics’ bile is rooted in Reed’s rock noir much more than in Metallica’s powerful defiance.
But what Metallica do here is underscore that sexy, sleazy, violent vulnerability, giving it muscle, so that the deathly struggle with Jack the Ripper really is a battle to the end – but “in the end it was an ordinary heart”, as ‘Pumping Blood’ puts it, and one that ultimately only allows itself to mourn for all it has lost, for all that it never had, in the long, sad closing track, ‘Junior Dad’, a song of almost perplexing simplicity.
These are the contradictions of Lulu – the character as much as the album, and in many ways you have to understand the first before you can really begin to embrace the second.
Lulu might never win accolades from the long-time fans of Lou Reed or Metallica, or from many others for that matter. But somehow, I suspect, Frank Wedekind is applauding and maybe somewhere – god knows where – Lulu herself feels that at last someone has understood her.