“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” It is, of course, pretentious to begin an album review by quoting Kierkegaard. But then again, Megadeth—or, really, founder/leader/guitarist/songwriter Dave Mustaine, with his French-titled song (“À Tout le Monde”), political-cartoon album covers, and faux-deep but edgy fiasco lyrics (“Hello me / Meet the real me / And my misfit’s way of life / A dark black past is my / Most valued possession”)—always was the most pretentious thrash band. I have still never figured out whether the multiple Mustaines in the “Sweating Bullets” video were supposed to be deliberately funny or whether they just represent Mustaine’s own self-importance.
That said, BMG has just released remastered, bonus-track-inclusive reissues of Megadeth’s The World Needs a Hero (2001) and The System Has Failed (2004), which have been unavailable on CD for the past five years. Reissues are less a time to review than to re-listen, with the Kierkegaardian benefit of backward understanding. When Megadeth released The World Needs a Hero, it was their ninth album, coming off of their worst, Risk. With a new label and, once again, new band members, it was supposed to be the return to form, the comeback, the part of the VH-1 “Behind the Music” where the band rallies and redeems itself.
Taken that way, here in 2019, the album is excellent, and, without the favorable comparisons to Risk or unfavorable comparisons to its Golden Age of back-to-back brilliance, Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good! (1985) through Youthanasia (1994, after which, honestly, I stopped paying much attention to them), it’s easier to appreciate Mustaine’s eccentric sensibilities. Witness the funnily catchy flanged vocals on the chorus of “Moto Psycho”, the adolescent-mentality answering machine recording of a woman’s voice (“You know what? It’s over… Don’t call me anymore”) while the guitar weeps, not gently, in “1000 Times Goodbye”, the cognitive disconnect of hearing Mustaine’s unromantic, nasal screech on the honest to god tragically idealistic power ballad “Promises”, which immediately lapses back to form in a hostile, crazily pretentious spoken word poem—now with Spanish guitar!—for “Recipe for Hate”. It’s fun to hear Mustaine let his freak flag fly.
But instead of being the homecoming, a few months after The World Needs a Hero was released, Dave Mustaine suffered debilitating nerve damage to his arm and announced that Megadeth was disbanding. The World Needs a Hero, then, became Megadeth’s final album—at least until Mustaine managed to recover and then recorded The System Has Failed with all hired gun musicians, including much beloved original guitarist Chris Poland and legendary session drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who was not known for metal but, man, kills it here. OK, this one, then, not The World Needs a Hero, would be the return to form! The comeback! The part of the VH-1 “Behind the Music” where the band rallies and redeems itself!
Is it? Looking backward again, yes and no: yes, because it feels familiar, but no, for the same reason. We get the comfortingly recognizable double-bass drums and tempo changes in “Blackmail the Universe”; the chug along rhythms of “Die Dead Enough” that seem reminiscent of “Angry Again” (“Angry Again Again“?; the lived-in feel, despite the harmonized, autotuned intro and chorus, of “Of Mice and Men”, which seems in debt to earlier Megadeth songs (“Tornado of Souls”, “She-Wolf”, “My Creation”) more than, say, John Steinbeck or Robert Burns; and the twin lead guitars segueing into a “Four Horsemen”/ “Mechanix” riff in “Shadow of Deth”.
Again looking back, neither The World Needs a Hero nor The System Has Failed was Megadeth’s last album after all. Taken together, they now seem to represent the group’s interstice, the moment when they acknowledged their zenith, let it go, and moved into their late career as thrash workhorses and standard bearers, having released five more albums since then. As rereleases, though, I’m more partial to The World Needs a Hero. It feels to me like the work of an artist who, at that point, really didn’t seem to care what anyone thought, even if that wasn’t true at the time, unlike the more conventional, thrashier The System Has Failed, with its angsty, Whataboutist cover art suggesting that every recent President was equally corrupt and dangerous, so fuck ’em all (MAGAdeth?).
Still, the rereleases give a nice sheen to some classic metal and the chance to reconnect with two albums that, for me at least, fell through the cracks of time. And maybe applying Kierkegaard to Megadeth isn’t even that pretentious. After all, it was those multiple Mustaines who, back in 1992, told each other that “hindsight is always 20/20”. He, or they, were right.