Back in the mid-‘90s, Spin Magazine produced some list or timeline or another, which claimed to be a definitive account of the greatest bands in heavy metal history. Spin had always been rather smug in its scarce coverage of my beloved heavy metal, and so I paid attention just long enough to note that those condescending hipsters at least knew to place Iron Maiden in their account.
Ten or more years later, Google doesn’t care to retrieve Spin’s bygone document for me, but I remember that Spin described Iron Maiden as pretentious, but also conceded that, and I paraphrase, “It was precisely because they aimed so high that Iron Maiden knew greater creative triumph than their peers.”
The same has also always been true of Metallica. While their catalogue is spectacularly uneven, no one can deny that Metallica has long been a uniquely ambitious standout in the largely humble, lowbrow world of heavy metal. While Ozzy was crooning corny werewolf anthems and Van Halen was utilizing lame synth lines to urge the youth of America to “Jump”, Metallica was crafting the classic Ride the Lightning, featuring songs about suicide and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Admittedly, Metallica’s themes and topics have not always managed to be unique, but even when the subject is a familiar one, Metallica’s approach is reliably, abnormally intelligent and intriguing. A favorite example of mine is the title track to the divisive album St. Anger. Anger is hardly a new topic in the annals of heavy metal, but where Slayer’s “Payback” attempts to convey rage by screaming tired one-liners from ‘80s action movies (“Payback’s a bitch, motherfucker!”), “St. Anger” (the song) is clearly the product of men who have legitimately struggled with rage, and who needn’t glamorize it or endorse it; they know that it isn’t fun or sexy, but rather painful and destructive.
Consider: Slayer sings, “I’m going to tear your fucking eyes out / rip your fucking flesh off”, and Metallica offers, “I want my anger to be healthy / And I want my anger just for me / And I need my anger not to control,” and, “It’s hard to see clear / Is it me? Is it fear?”
Likewise, Metallica has dared, as have many metal bands before and since, to question faith. But while Slayer’s over-the-top attack (God Hates Us All’s “New Faith”) offers such unintentionally comical and nonsensical lyrics as “I keep the bible in a pool of blood / So that none of its lies can affect me” (prompting my friend Josh to wonder aloud, “Exactly what qualities does this blood have, that it can negate the deceitful powers of the bible in such a fashion?”), Metallica’s “The God That Failed”, penned after vocalist and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield’s mother died having refused medical assistance because of her Christian Science beliefs, goes a decidedly more subtle, poetic route: “I see faith in your eyes… Broken is the promise, betrayal / The healing hand held back by the deepened nail.” (At least Slayer’s justification is deep; quoth guitarist Kerry King: “One day you’re living your life, and then you’re hit by a car or your dog dies, so you feel like, ‘God really hates me today’.”)
Recently, while studying Metallica’s lyrics, I noticed something of a fascinating trend which dates back to the band’s debut album, 1983’s Kill ‘Em All (admittedly not the subtlest of titles, but hey, they were young.) What I noticed is this: in many Metallica songs, indeed nearly one song for each of the nine studio albums the band has produced, James directs a string of insights or even accusations at some mysterious “you”, only to concede by song’s end that he is talking to himself.
For me, this recurring pattern calls to mind Fight Club, ‘cause as Joss Whedon once said: “Everything does.” Now, I realize that one could argue that such a recurring motif points to a lack of imagination on Metallica’s part (and here I am thinking of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, wherein the fictionalized Kaufman’s even more fictional twin brother Donald writes a script called The 3 and marvels at its every hackneyed revelation, especially the fact that the killer and his victim and the determined investigator are all the same person.) For my part, I’ll only allow that Metallica’s unlikely running theme might have been unintentional. Regardless, I find it compelling.
We all have a tendency to compartmentalize our personalities and project our faults and accountability onto others, and while Metallica has never managed to address this phenomenon as elegantly as, say, Mad Men (“A man is whatever room he is in”), I am surprised at what they are able to convey with a few choice words.
Metallica’s latest album, Death Magnetic saw the band draw its nearly 20-year-old “Unforgiven” trilogy to a close with “The Unforgiven III”, wherein Hetfield sings, “How can I be lost in remembrance I relive? And how can I blame you, when it’s me I can’t forgive?” which serves as a gentle coda to 1991’s “The Unforgiven”: “Never free, never me… The old man then prepares to die regretfully/That old man here is me.”
In “Frayed Ends of Sanity”, a highlight of the menacing and aggressive …And Justice for All album from 1988, Hetfield repeatedly growls the following chorus: “Growing conspiracy / Everyone’s after me / Frayed ends of sanity / Hear them calling.” The final refrain, however, changes the lyrics thusly: “Growing conspiracy / Myself is after me.” (For a much funnier take on this theme, see Megadeth’s “Sweating Bullets,” arguably the most unintentionally hilarious thing you’ll find on the internet.)
Even in Metallica’s cornier early years, this fascination with dual identity was evident. Behold this unlikely lyric from the otherwise cliché “Jump in the Fire”: “Living your life as me / I am you, you see… Come home where you belong.”
What I find most intriguing about this lyrical pattern that lingers throughout the band’s entire career is that it arguably casts the meaning of even their other songs in doubt. Consider 1988’s “Eye of the Beholder” with its alternating challenges: “Do You See What I See…? Do You Hear What I Hear…? Do You Feel What I Feel?”
Or St. Anger’s “Frantic”, which could almost be Tyler Durden’s theme song: “Do I have the strength to know how I’ll go? Can I find it inside to deal with what I shouldn’t know… You live it or you lie it!”
Still, it’s not only possible that this pattern has always been unconscious on the band’s part (if not outright accidental); it’s likely… with one exception. One track, from 1991’s Metallica, saw the band take what had been merely an odd (if also stubborn) songwriting quirk and turn it into a full-blown mission statement. “Sad But True” is not Metallica’s greatest song, but it is among their most successfully accessible, by which I mean that it manages to be inviting for fans and novices alike without compromising the band’s signature, crushing sound. It is also the purest, clearest, more stirring and overt example of the band’s strange “projecting” theme.
I’m your life / I’m the one who takes you there…
They betray; I’m your only true friend now
I’m your dream, make you real
I’m your eyes when you must steal
I’m your pain when you can’t feel…
You’re my mask
You’re my cover, my shelter…
I’m your life
I’m the one who took you there
…and I no longer care
I’m your truth, telling lies
I’m your reasoned alibis
I’m inside, open your eyes:
I spent a decade or more angrily dismissing Metallica as sellouts, and no one can deny that the band opted to compromise or even abandon their hardcore roots in the name of commercial viability, though as I age I tend to be a bit more compassionate and forgiving about such decisions. What pulled me back into the fandom fold was what I mentioned before: Metallica’s lyrics convey real, often painful struggles. (While I have always considered “Until It Sleeps” to be a low point in the band’s career, I defy any other metal band to top its greatest lyric: “The pain still hates me / So hold me until it sleeps.”)
The abbreviated lyrical example from “Jump in the Fire” notwithstanding, Metallica would never have crafted anthing as resonant or revalatory as “Sad But True” had they not allowed themselves to experiment with their sound, and with their very identity as a band; no song on Kill ‘Em All would have dared to concede that fear might be at the root of one’s rage, as “St. Anger” suggests.
Some fans still regard Metallica with resentment, suggesting that the band should have essentially spent the last two decades re-recording Kill ‘Em All, repeatedly churning out uninspired, ridiculous, wanna-be provocative metal in the vein of Slayer. Fifteen years ago, I’d have joined their foolish chorus. But now?
Inevitably, Metallica said it best: “I’ve outgrown that fucking lullaby.”
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