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Lou Reed and Metallica’s ‘Lulu’ is a challenging journey into the grandiose

The thought of pairing classic rock artists Lou Reed and Metallica together on an album isn’t as bizarre as one would assume.

While the former never ascended to the sort of multi-platinum status that accompanied much of hard rock group Metallica’s late ’80s heyday, both have made significant and influential contributions to music in the form of classic albums such as Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” and Reed’s “Transformer,” and each command their own devoted following with a good amount of crossover listeners.

Reed, who’s perhaps best known for his work with seminal ’60s rock outfit The Velvet Underground, is more in tune with his experimental side found on albums, such as 1975’s “Metal Machine Music,” with “Lulu.” Birthed from the collaboration of the two acts to honor the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th Anniversary, “Lulu” is a concept album based around two plays written by German playwright Frank Wedekind.

The project seems to have been Reed’s idea to begin with, as he told BBC Music he wrote the majority of the album’s lyrics, and mostly involves Reed performing spoken-word over the hard-rocking Metallica wailing away in the background. If all this sounds a tad pretentious to you as a listener, there is more of the same all over “Lulu.”

While many critics have been especially harsh in their critiques of the album, it’s easy to see where this sort of hatred towards the pairing comes from. Both acts share a good amount of loathing from their own fans. Metallica has their decades-long aversion of the music industry’s movement toward digital media, and Reed’s spoken word hasn’t always been easily consumable for fans of his more accessible work on tracks such as “Perfect Day” or “Sweet Jane.”

Though both of these artists could have simply put out a few greatest-hits compilations or half-baked cover albums and called it a day, “Lulu” seems to strive for something a little more worthwhile. There are also plenty of tracks and moments worth singling out on the album -specifically “Junior Dad,” a track that could have easily ended any of The Velvet Underground’s late ’60s albums.

With a running time of just under 20 minutes, “Junior Dad” is an epic by any standards, but especially today, when 3-minute pop songs by the likes of Katy Perry rule the airwaves. Reed whimpers about his “greatest disappointments,” while Metallica freely improvises with their respective instruments in the background, and the end result is a slow but theatrical-sounding track that builds to a point of total chaos with Metallica frontman James Hetfield growling in the distance.

The very theatrical nature of closing track “Junior Dad” is what Reed has always done best with songs such as “Sister Ray,” which closed out avant-garde rock album “White Light/White Heat” in 1968. This makes “Lulu” a much easier album to recommend to fans of Reed especially, because as the aging rocker started his solo career in the early ’70s, he leaned more toward music that was both rewarding and challenging to both his and the listener’s patience.

What also raises the argument that “Lulu” is more of an all-encompassing music experience rather than just another album starts with the packaging, which features photography by Anton Corbijn. Corbijn, whose eye for mood and atmosphere has been utilized to lens photographs for bands such as Depeche Mode, has also directed the picturesque Joy Division biopic “Control” and proves that Reed and company were going for a very theatrical tone.

Also worth noting is that “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky has been hired to direct the first music video for single “Iced Honey,” a track that offers some of the most abstract lyrics on “Lulu.” Both Reed and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich have mentioned their excitement over Aronofsky’s involvement, with Reed telling the Associated Press he hopes the video “can be his next “Black Swan.'”

This is pretty clear evidence Reed was aiming for something grandiose with “Lulu” and pairing with the equally theatrical Metallica was no accident. Yet other aging rock stars such as Tom Waits have produced far more consistent albums as of late, and there has also been another critically lauded Frank Wedekind adaptation in the Broadway musical “Spring Awakening,” so in terms of critical reception, Reed and Metallica are on the low end of the spectrum.

Regardless, “Lulu” has people talking, with writers on review aggregator sites such as Metacritic already proclaiming this to be the worst album of 2011. While listeners may agree this is far from the truth, “Lulu” is certainly a challenging album that offers few rewards for those willing to wade through the album’s ten tracks.

Yet this has often been the case with Reed’s work over his 50-year career, so why should he stop now? Perhaps the Aronofsky-directed video will shed some light on what sort of project “Lulu” is intended to be, but for now, we are left with an album that at the very least yields some interesting results for those who can look past many critics’ snobbish milieu.