No, there is not one conventionally good song on Lulu, the 87-minute, hyped-to-infinity, Frankenstein's monster of Lou Reed babble and Metallica chug that came out the day after Halloween. Not really. This is a batch of 10 challenging pieces that average more than eight minutes in length, and meld the recent tendencies of both parties into an album no more graceful than you'd expect. Critical reaction has been largely negative: Pitchfork scored Lulu a 1.0. Chuck Klosterman skewered it in a brilliant, somewhat conflicted take, deeming the album "unlistenable." Rolling Stone dutifully gave two of its idols the benefit of the doubt and three stars. Some Metallica fans are reportedly threatening to shoot Lou Reed.
The big riddle is why this was made and how we take it — what did the patron saint of New York Cool and the brash boys of Bay Area metal hear in their 2009 performance at a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame concert that warranted holing up in a San Rafael studio and turning a couple of plays by German writer Frank Wedekind into a spoken-word metal album? We know Lulu is not supposed to be a Metallica record; a lot of it sounds like Reed revisiting some of the basic ideas of the Velvet Underground. Certainly, the fact that Reed hyped the project so, uh, hyperbolically, suggesting it might be "the best thing done by anyone, ever," didn't do the jarring final product any favors.
So is Lulu a "listenable" rock record? No. But the real question is whether it's art, or just a bunch of self-indulgent millionaires fucking around. And for about 30 minutes, in pieces of three or four "songs," the experiment is really interesting: Reed's bloody lyrics work like the brass knuckles on Metallica's riffing fist, and they explore territories that neither could have reached alone. "Iced Honey," the album's most song-like song, begins with a grinding, paranoid figure played on two guitars — one of Metallica's most vivid contributions. Lou Reed enters the churn with his haphazard half-shout — the listener's near constant companion — and what at first seems to be a lazy and ridiculous poem ("If you make others feel like jam/ Poured on a piece of charbroiled lamb," might be its nadir). But as Reed's mad ramblings grow more heated ("See if the ice will melt for you!") his assault on the fleeting nature of love achieves, if not poignance, at least potency.
There probably isn't a better marriage of the two parties' powers than "Pumping Blood," where Lars Ulrich's drums evoke the gruesome murder Reed's lyrics detail, right before Metallica leaps into some of its harshest thrashing this millennium. The seven-minute track climaxes in utter chaos, Metallica's riffs stabbing the listener, Reed babbling about "blood spurting from me!" The average gore metal fantasy is a lot less affecting.
"Frustration" stars another ominous Hetfield-and-Hammett chug, and its grim pauses make Reed's lyrical thesis — "frustration is my lexicon of hate" — just as scary and sad ("I too love your eyes/ I want you as my wife!") as he intends. And surprisingly, "Junior Dad," the album's longest track at nearly 20 minutes, is a passable mini-epic that avoids the blunt repetition of lesser Lulu moments ("Cheat on Me," ahem) and manages a little of the cinematic grace of Metallica masterpieces like "Orion." None of these will match the thrilling efficacy of "Master of Puppets" or the anarchic drone of "Sister Ray," of course. But as a horrific collage of sound and words — and, ultimately, as a flawed piece of art — Lulu earns its keep (although not its absurd length).
In the end, Lulu is all about the listener's expectations. If you treat it as another album by two of rock's most commercially and artistically successful brands, it is ponderous, exhausting, and comically melodramatic. But if you took the big names away, and listened to it as a record by an unknown artist with no commercial aspirations, it would be difficult to deny the truly chilling and exciting moments in Lulu's wilderness of desolation and excess.
Of course, Lulu is on its way to becoming the most derided album of the year; if any redemption is in store, it's probably years off. Who in 2011 — besides ravenous fans and critics — has time to spend three or four listens acclimating to a 90-minute platter of sonic abuse, let alone to give it another series of careful and open-minded listens? Not many. Few albums demand that kind of attention anymore, but some, like Lulu, actually do reward it.