I’ve been informally defending the Lulu album since its release on October 31. After a recent Twitter debate and an in-car discussion en route to see Alice Cooper play Bridgeport, CT (where I was the only Lulu champion amongst our cadre of five), I feel it’s time to finally, formally craft my defense.
I’ve been reluctant to do this because it’s kind of like trying to defend, oh, I don’t know, the movie Glitter, or something. It’s essentially a losing battle because so many critics have already scoffed at it. But on the other hand, it’s a great challenge. I’m thinking of the 33 ½ series, in which in one installment Carl Wilson examines Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love. The moral of that story is that of course there’s value to be found in almost any work of art (pop or otherwise) created in earnest by artists with talent, that popular songs are popular for a reason, and that even a dubious, condescending critic can end up teary-eyed in Las Vegas at what Kathy Griffin calls “Cirque du Celine”.
The case of Lulu is a bit different, however, in that, generally speaking, the parties responsible for its existence—Lou Reed and Metallica—are relatively respected by their peers, by their fans, and by music journalists. There will always be a few snide snickers over some of their more self-indulgent moments (Exhibit A: Metal Machine Music. Exhibit B: Some Kind of Monster.), but by and large, these guys are revered. They are not the butts of jokes in the way that Celine Dion has been—until now, that is. Consequently, the task of advocating in favor of an almost universally hated album by musicians who are otherwise well-regarded becomes all the more daunting due to the bar having been set so high by the artists’ prior bodies of work.
Nevertheless, armed with Carl R. Mueller’s translation of Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box—the plays that are the source material for the Lulu album—and a cup of yesterdays’ coffee, reheated and flavored with immune-boosting Ensure (and I’m now officially coining the term “grandma latte”), I put this procrastination in personal narrative aside to attempt the impossible.
A work inspired by/derived from a preexisting work should be evaluated both on how it interprets the source material and on its own merit. These two rubrics should be applied separately because either aspect of a work can be carried off successfully or ineffectively without affecting the other. That is to say, a work can honor the source material while being itself a miserable piece of crap (Exhibit C: most Frank Wildhorn musicals); conversely, it can be inconsistent with the source material and still be strong in its own right (Exhibit D: the Garbo film Camille).
Reviewing Lulu positively based solely on the former rubric—whether the record rings true to its source—is the easier position to defend. It’s a matter of drawing comparisons. Reviewing Lulu positively based on the latter rubric—whether the record triumphs as an autonomous work of art—is more difficult, as it’s hard not to be swayed by one’s opinion developed via the previous measure. But we’ll begin with the first rubric and then forget about it temporarily when we attempt the second.
1. Portraying the Plays
Lulu, the character of Wedekind’s creation, is ingeniously drawn; she is both victim and villain. Her unapologetic enjoyment of sex is out of place in the mid-1890s, and it overwhelms her male partners—all three of her husbands die after marrying her. She will not be made a whore (as proposed by the Marquis Casti-Piani, who attempts to blackmail her and sell her to a brothel), but she eventually resorts to prostitution of her own volition when she and her ailing third husband have no other source of income. (Wedekind brings judgment on this, Lulu’s ultimate compromise of her sovereignty, through Jack the Ripper, who is perhaps the only inevitable Grim Reaper of a deus ex machina worthy of ending Lulu’s life.) That Lulu’s very nature, in contrast with her beauty, incites ambivalence in all who encounter her, including the plays’ audiences, is a literary feat—to create a character that inspires both loathing and sympathy—and, remarkably, it is not unlike listeners’ polarized responses to Lulu the album.
On Songs for Drella and The Blue Mask, Reed writes from the point of view of fictionalized posthumous personalities based on actual people (Andy Warhol and Delmore Schwartz, respectively), often constructing an internal monologue of speculative psychology. For The Raven, Reed takes liberties with Edgar Allen Poe’s stories with prose that alternates between verbatim Poe and deviations into Reed’s own exploration of the characters’ psyches. Similarly, for Lulu, Reed adopts the role of narrator, and, more frequently, the voice of Lulu and of the supporting characters whose lives she destroys; his lyrics also reference plot points in non-linear succession.
In “Frustration”, Reed seems to channel the thoughts of Dr. Ludwig Schön, the middle-aged Svengali character who rescued Lulu as a child from the streets of Berlin and raised her as a pet project—molding her into a performer and an insatiable lover—rather than as a daughter. The lyrics,
I want so much to hurt you
I want you as my wife
capture Schön’s conflicted feelings over the nature of his and Lulu’s relationship, which is fraught with mutually unrequited lust and resentment. The tension between them climaxes in Act III of Earth Spirit, wherein Lulu verbally torments Schön to the brink of despair, finally persuading him to call off his engagement to the virginal Adelaide and to marry Lulu instead. Schön confesses to Lulu, “I have never in my life cursed anyone as deeply as I curse you”, and Reed’s lyrics mirror this sentiment.
The final track, “Junior Dad”, alludes to Schön’s son, Alwa, who becomes Lulu’s lover after she kills his father. Reed’s lyrics,
The greatest disappointment
Age withered him and changed him
Into junior dad
depict Alwa’s declining physical condition at the end of Pandora’s Box. He has assumed his father’s role—that of Lulu’s husband—but she is dissatisfied with him. Lulu regrets having shot Schön, saying to Alwa, “I see you lying there, and I want to cut off my hands for committing such a crime against reason!” Indeed, in Lulu’s life, Alwa has proven to be “the greatest disappointment”.
The third track “Pumping Blood” depicts the character Lulu’s grisly murder by Jack the Ripper:
“Oh Jack I beseech you”
Blood in the foyer
The kitchen, with her knives splayed
In Pandora’s Box, this scene is the last of the play:
(Sweat drips from JACK’s hair. His hands are bloody. He pants as though his lungs were bursting and stares with bulging eyes at the ground. LULU, trembling, grabs the bottle, breaks it against the table, and rushes at JACK with the broken end. With his right foot he hurtles LULU onto her back, then lifts her from the floor.)
LULU: No, no!—Mercy—Murderer!—Police!—Police!
JACK: Shut up! You’re not getting away this time!
This is the most obvious parallel between the lyrics and the plays’ dialogue. Reed’s best lyric of the album also appears in “Pumping Blood”, when he observes, “In the end it was an ordinary heart.” Lulu’s heart, fickle and never fully given to the lovers who longed to have it, succumbs at last to a serial killer’s blade.
In short, lyrically, the album is rich with moments that embody the plays’ moods, action, and characters.
Part two of the question of whether Lulu does justice to the plays has to do with whether Metallica and Reed have composed a score that suits its theatrical inspiration. Again, the answer is yes.
Lulu herself is a collection of contractions, and so are the tones of the plays. They are at once cold, coarse, yet sensual. In keeping with the Expressionist trends of his day, Wedekind shows no mercy toward his characters, whose lives devolve into suicide, prostitution, murder. Even so, he allows them moments of twisted beauty, such as the love scene between Lulu and Alwa after she has shot his father. Alwa, a playwright, muses, “In my case, sensuality and creativity go hand in hand.” He adds, “Which means I could either exploit you creatively or love you.” His inner conflict is consistent with the plays’ most dominant theme—that of turmoil caused by repressed sexual aggression.
Likewise, Lulu reveals a somewhat suppressed Metallica. Whiplash speed, complex song structures, and showy soloing typical of their work are sparse here. Instead, they adopt a slower, more deliberate, doom-driven sound, in which rage brims beneath the surface rather than boiling over. Given what we know Metallica to be capable of, this music represents a subdued intensity.
Reed is a forceful musical personality, and it’s fair to say that his is really the prevailing voice in these songs, as their relative simplicity and unhurried pace is more characteristic of his work than of Metallica’s. To put it bluntly, it feels as though Reed has made Metallica his bitch. Appropriately, this recalls the perverse prelude of Earth Spirit, when an animal trainer presents Lulu to the audience as a ringmaster would a circus sideshow act:
Man will fight beast in a narrow cage:
One swings his whip with high disdain,
The other roars and with murderous rage
Leaps at his trainer’s throat—but in vain.
Cleverness first, then strength wins the day;
Beast rears high; man falls low.
But at its master’s steely gaze,
Beast backs down, pretends to play,
Affirming thus his master’s sway.
In the scene, Lulu is depicted as a willing submissive. (Schön later suggests that Lulu’s ravenous libido can only be tamed by a whip.) If Metallica have bent over for Reed, they have done so either willingly or because Reed’s strength of influence left them no choice.
The stylistic clash of Reed vs. Metallica—of abstract, droning distortion vs. dexterous precision; of measured delivery vs. frenetic velocity (e.g., “Mistress Dread”)—serves well the oppositional energies of the subject matter. The same is true of the songs’ repetitive musical statements (e.g., “The View”), as Wedekind’s characters are motivated by sexual urges. (Is not sex in essence an act of repetition?)
2. The Album on Its Own
Lulu is not a Metallica album. All those seeking a Metallica album will be disappointed. Neither is Lulu a Lou Reed album. It is a Lou Reed and Metallica album.
(Queen + Paul Rogers) ≠ Queen ~ (Lou Reed + Metallica) ≠ Metallica ≠ Lou Reed
It’s not entirely fair to evaluate Lulu by Metallica standards or by Lou Reed standards because the record claims to be neither of those things individually. Rather, it claims to be the sum of those things. Disparaging “Loutallica” for not sounding like Metallica is almost as absurd as criticizing the quantity 3 for not being more like the quantity 2. Three contains 2, but it’s not exactly 2.*
Emotionally, Lulu’s most stunning qualities are its darkness, its brutal honesty, and its rage. (“This has so much rage it’s thrilling,” Reed told The Guardian in October.)
Musically, it’s refreshing to hear Metallica playing outside their own box. For all the technical complexity and the expansion of the boundaries of metal that Metallica have accomplished in their career, there’s never been an album where they pushed as drastically beyond their safety zone as they do on Lulu. They seem to aspire to be more than—or at least other than—Metallica. And, with Reed at the helm (his lyrics were written prior to the studio sessions), the group becomes a collective charged by, rather than hindered by, the dissonance in and disparity of musical styles for which it’s been unduly criticized.
In other words, it is the NOT-Metallica and the NOT-Lou Reed qualities that make the album great. It is this otherness, heretofore unheard from Metallica or Reed separately, that comprises Loutallica (for lack of a better term). And it is this creation of a new entity with its own sound that renders the album worthy of praise.
Now, whether or not you like that sound is a different matter. Likeability has no bearing on the sound’s uniqueness and experimental courage, which are the measures of success I’ve chosen for evaluating the work independently of the source material. Is the album aesthetically pleasing? That depends on the ears listening. Lulu is like a Rothko painting. It expresses what the artist set out to express; whether or not you enjoy looking at it or listening to it is irrelevant to its purpose.
To return to Wedekind, “Art should be self-evident.”
One of the chief aims of Expressionism in German theatre was to challenge established societal norms. If Lulu is denigrated for being something other than what we’re accustomed to hearing, it is at least upholding one artistic value of the era in which its theatrical inspiration was born.
Id unleashed is not a pretty thing; in the Wedekind plays, Lulu’s beauty is only external. From within her spring primal impulses with no conscience, and in her wake lies only death.
And if that’s not metal, I don’t know what is.
*If, in some obscure academic corner of the universe, 3 is exactly 2, I ask anyone who resides there to please pardon my error.
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ORIGINAL HIPSTER by Linda Leseman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at originalhipster.net.