During the summer of 1996, I spent a week on tour with Lollapalooza, and after an unnerving first night on a racetrack outside of Knoxville, I quickly adopted a personal safety drill. Each night thereafter, at exactly 8:50, I would drop whatever I was doing and rush as fast as I could to the place behind the field where the buses were parked, bang on the door of my allotted cruiser, and put my head under a seat cushion. A few minutes later, Metallica would turn the sky outside light with fire and noise, in imitation of the Tet offensive. One night, I was accidentally locked out of the bus, and I saw the band members all sitting around glumly in the grass behind the stage, while huge sonic booms filled the air and the crowd in front went gleefully epileptic. It was a chilling portrait of the ultimate boredom of rock ‘n’ roll.
Still, what Metallica do–essentially brood, at top speed and volume–they do supremely well, bludgeoning their sullen audience with precise and thunderous martial sonics and appropriately bleak lyricism. Metallica are more like masons than musicians, pounding and chipping away; indeed, singer James Hetfield has something of the quality of statuary. And, haughtiness notwithstanding, they’ve always managed to resist being sucked into one of rock’s deepest-held and most dangerous convictions: the idea that the output of bands needs to grow and change over time. Re-Load, Metallica’s “new” album, was mostly written two years ago, at the same time as Load, then held for release. Blowing the lid off the time=growth=art fallacy, it’s actually the better LP, with more speedmetal, anthemic choruses, weedle-wee solos, and cumbersomely worded lyrics.
“Fuel,” “Bad Seed,” “Unforgiven II,” “The Memory Remains,” and “Carpe Diem Baby” are all studly examples of Metallica’s forte: here a joltingly energetic number about a car crash, there a joyously rendered condemnation of the competitive nature of mankind. Re-Load has its hackneyed moments, of course–self-parodies like “Devil’s Dance” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” And occasionally, the band veers off course, in directions that made Load, which had some “experimental” moments, like a ballad and a boogie-rock number, a less cliched–and therefore less strong–album. Re-Load‘s “Low Man’s Lament,” an acoustic-style ballad with what sounds like a bagpipe at its finish, ends with three long minutes of Hetfield pleading, “Please forgive me,” a most un-Metallica-like sentiment. He sounds like a cross between George Jones and Eddie Vedder.
One of the great appeals of Hetfield’s songwriting, however, is that his hatred is directed at himself, as opposed to more common and easier targets, like women. “Ain’t gonna waste my hate on you/Gonna save it for myself,” he sang on Load, while on the new album he attempts to come a step closer to expressing actual compassion on “The Memory Remains.” The song is about a “guilty goddess,” a “faded prima donna,” and if it’s not about Marianne Faithfull, then why the hell is she singing growly backup vocals? One can only admire Ms. Faithfull’s ability to exploit her own sad legend with a jolly ho-ho-ho, but her presence just points out Metallica’s continuing uneasy relationship with fun. Although they often do things–like opening their sets with the Anti-Nowhere League song “So What”–that suggest they have a sense of humor, their music is so singularly solemn that, after a week in their proximity, I finally realized that the only way for a non-hesher to appreciate them was to add one’s own into the mix. Luckily, Hetfield’s courtly turns are always good for a chuckle–phrases like “under wicked sky” and “satisfaction this way comes.” If only the band could do something funny with its music–but that would violate the rigid constraints they’ve set for themselves, which are so admired by their fans.
For all its strengths, Re-Load does not perhaps justify critics’ original contention that Metallica was the only “smart” metal band on the planet, never borne out by anything other than a lack of songs about chicks and beer and a few covers of “cool” songs by the likes of Killing Joke. Those things implied a broad-mindedness rarely seen in metal bands, but the truth is that what fans have always liked about Metallica is exactly the opposite: their ability to pander to the innate conservatism of the market, with endless goodwill and a fairly straight face. Like good statuary, it endures.