Pandora’s Box, the G.W. Pabst movie starring the beautiful Louise Brooks, tells the story of a prostitute who gets further and further into the dark and seedy side of life, finally killed by Jack the Ripper (oops, spoiler alert). It’s dark, sure, but the movie has beauty and charisma, principally lent by the divine Ms. Brooks. When she smiles the horror pales for a while. We lose her beauty when things get ugly.

The two plays on which Pandora’s Box is based are by Frank Wedekind and are also the putative source material for the album titled Lulu by the unlikely pairing of Lou Reed and Metallica. Neither artist has ever been mentioned for very long before the term ‘bloody-minded’ starts getting bandied around, and this record will, you would like to think, continue in that vein. But nothing can really prepare you for how ugly this album is in every sense of the word. Perhaps judging a book by its cover might work, though: there’s a gaudily made-up mannequin of a woman with a poorly-cropped bob, arms missing and metal sockets visible, stained and dented, with ‘Lulu’ scrawled in dark blood. Compare this with a still from Pandora’s Box (for academic interest, and the chance to post a picture of Louise Brooks) and you see the problem. Pabst’s film offers a sense of the loss of a vibrant lover of life; Reed’s, ahem, libretto focuses on the violence of this Lulu’s taking-off, a world where a woman asks whether there’s any ‘waste [I] could eat’ and the references to blood trickle out of every second line. A world where the opening line of the album is ‘I would cut my arms and tits off/For a glimpse of Boris Karloff’. See? The cover? Me neither.

Jack D. Ripper (get it?): Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove

The celebration of the nastier side of life, the velvet underground of the original novel which inspired the band name, is all very well, but it used to be cut with a sense of beauty, maybe even irony. For every Black Angel’s Death Song there was a Femme Fatale, for every Sad Song there was a Gift. God, most of the stuff seems to have been done for a dare. And I’m a Lou Reed fan: I bought Set the Twilight Reeling and kept the faith. I might not have liked The Raven but I still felt vaguely treacherous for not having given it a go. No more, Lou. Nevermore. Not until the very end of this double CD of hate, pain and precious bodily fluids.

This stuff is untainted by anything you’d call the ‘compunctious visitings of nature’. Perhaps there’s a moral here somewhere, perhaps there’s an inner beauty in the tedious repetitive acts of abuse and violence depicted herein, but there’s a clear sense that Lou is dwelling way too long on that which he’s condemning, if condemning is what he’s actually doing.

And he sounds so angry. Not angry like Straw Man from New York (for me his masterpiece), where he burns with a righteous indignation. Not angry like the camp anger of Vicious or the sneer of that Take No Prisoners live album we used to listen to the swearing on as kids. Here he’s bellowing like Lear in Act II[1], like the impotent ranting of a man who’s losing it. Like a mental patient. It’s not Primal Scream therapy, though, it’s quite pathetic. There may be a nugget of worth in the whole theme of aggression/passion in here somewhere, but you can’t go from magnets attracting each other to biting someone’s nipple off in ten minutes. It’s more than a little icky.

Folded through with some melody, some musicianship, this may work, but we’ll never know as he is enabled by Metallica here, a band far past their prime and (to this listener) only capable of sounding very precise and wealthy as they play their accurate garage rock to large stadia in the developing world (well, when the promoters haven’t fucked off with the money). The confident snarl of James Hetfield is much classier now he’s kicked the booze and does his warmups properly, but here his vocals are right back to the frat boy bellowing we knew from their earlier, unfunny albums. His backing vocals on Iced Honey are so frankly terrible they must have been a guide vocal left on or bled through another mike. Lars Ulrich’s perfectly-miked drums attempt with a superfluity of fills and parawhatevers to lift the banal sludge here and there (listen to The View for his gainful attempt) but there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off. There are times when it’s not really apparent that both sides—Lou and Metallica—are playing the same song, that the vocals are in the same time or key (and on The View everyone’s flat). It’s like when you’re listening to something on the laptop and a flash ad starts up in another window and it takes you a few seconds to realize there are two independent sounds happening at once, except here you’ve paid for the privilege (but in the interests of fairness I must list the advantage of being able to turn both off with one click).  It’s not good.

It might be a literary challenge to write from the point of view of Lulu being killed by Jack the Ripper but Lou has singularly failed to nail it so the competition’s still open.  Pumping Blood, the song in which she seems to being killed by Jack, is by far the best example of how lazy this thing sounds. Lou has no melody. Metallica has no riff. He yells. They sludge. It stops. They play something sensitive, like One or that Black album. He starts groaning, close-miked. It’s going to take off, again, we know. He sings and it’s a parody of Lou. He ad libs ‘come on James’, but nothing much happens different as a result of his encouragement. Lars does one of those when he holds the cymbal and whacks it a few times.

I will swallow your sharpest cutter Like a colored man’s dick

Blood spurting from me
“Oh Jack, Jack I beseech…”
“Jack, I beseech you, I beseech…”
In the end it was an ordinary heart

A bit of For Whom The Bell Tolls and we’re out. It may not even beat Saucy Jack by David St. Hubbins. (He does use he word ‘haughty’ on Dragon, though). Musically it’s Metallica by numbers and they can do it in their sleep. They don’t need Lou and Lou don’t need them.

And although cherry picking bad lyrics is easy on most albums[2] (didn’t Dylan himself rhyme ‘help’ with ‘kelp’?) there is such a range from which to draw that a representative sample wouldn’t be kind. There’s Peter ‘Lorre/Gory’ and ‘Happy/Nappy’—Brandenburg Gate. Love is inexplicably described as a ‘passionateless wave’ on Cheat on Me, and I’ve always said that making up words is our last resort. A nod, perhaps, to Hetfield’s penchant for hunting, in Iced Honey, when Lou admonishes us that ‘If you make others feel like jam/Poured on a piece of charbroiled lamb’ things won’t end well for you. I have no desire to know that Lou feels ‘dry and spermless like a girl’ and the ‘young and just formed angel who sits upon the pin of lust’ sounds as pretentious as it is; I’m not going to speculate on the use of the term ‘Kotex jukebox’ in the context of early 20th century Germany.

One positive in all this mess is Junior Dad, a song divorced from a)the Lulu project and b) Metallica. The riff is all Lou, the phrasing and regret all vintage Lou; the lyric faintly heartbreaking. It reminds me of the tone set by Xmas in February, the song that kills New York stone dead. I hear it was developed with John Zorn at one stage. But here it’s allowed to get a little lumpen with the Boys trudging along behind it to no benefit whatsoever, and it’s then allowed a 12 minute coda which, although nice enough, leaves the poor listener at the end of an ordeal of well over an hour and 20 minutes, wishing that the whole thing would fade the fuck out. Crucially, it’s got no place here on this violent, black pudding of an album. They tell me that members of Metallica cried at the playback: you would cry too if it happened to you….

I don’t find Lulu offensive in terms of its lyrical nastiness: I’ve heard worse. It’s the unrelenting direness of the whole thing. It’s the thought that both collaborators are so surrounded with fawning that this saw the light of day. It’s the fact that both collaborators are capable of more. And it’s the fact that neither collaborator had any real control over Lou Reed.

Avoid the album. Hear Junior Dad when someone finds a version without Metallica on it. You can wait.

LATE EDIT: Having done some perusing of YouTube I’ve found a version of Junior Dad with Zorn. Here it is, and although it’s not great it at least takes half the time the Loutallica version steals from you.

[1] And not in that good way.

[2] I do have an old LP of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech which is the exception to this rule.