Sad But True: How the Black Album Both Made and Ruined Metallica
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Popular music is fixated with jumping-off points, springboards, acts of conception. Launch pads for particular genres or movements are recognized, studied, and then immortalized: that rec room back-to-school jam held at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, that amplifier's tumble from the roof of a car, that itinerant musician's song at the Tutwiler, Miss., train depot. More recently, the Internet practically collapsed under the weight of all the 20th anniversary plaudits for Nirvana's recently reissued Nevermind, largely credited with triggering the seismic musical shift that was grunge.
I mention all this because lately I've been thinking about Metallica -- a little bit about the group's collaboration with Lou Reed producing a 19-minute track when I thought only Joanna Newsom was allowed to get away with such nonsense, and a little bit about the first music awards mishap where some microphone-thrusting, red-carpet troll mistakes Lars Ulrich for Moby. But mostly I've been thinking about Metallica's landmark self-titled release and why its 20th birthday drew a ho-hum response from those individuals whose primary function in life is to get wet-your-pants giddy about these sorts of things.
Now, the collective indifference is certainly not from a lack of pretty facts and figures: 15 million copies sold in the U.S. (comparatively, Nevermind has moved 10 million units), three singles that cracked the Billboard Top 40, a two-year support tour featuring over 300 shows in 37 countries. Metallica outsold every rock LP in what was essentially the music industry's steroid era -- an era when Diamond-certified albums were dropping at the rate of one every three months. (Since 1967, 107 LPs have sold 10 million copies or more; 43 were released in the 1990s.) This is a wildly impressive feat.
I suspect the indifference lies in what Metallica ultimately accomplished. Nevermind launched a movement that featured contemporaries who frequently equaled Nirvana's ability to refashion the efforts of predecessors into something wholly original and newly intense. Metallica launched its namesake's wildly inconsistent second act. Sure, the album was a jumping-off point of sorts, a wonderfully-sounding attempt to usher thrash metal toward something closer to pop, but no artist came close to ever matching it. Any movement was dead before it took a first breath; Metallica essentially invented and perfected thrash pop in one fell swoop.
Twenty years later, "Enter Sandman," with its Phil Spector-like wall of sound, feels as skull-crushingly titanic as it did upon first listen. In "Sad But True" and "Don't Tread on Me,' the melodic intensity hinted at only previously was explored more thoroughly and colorfully. Meanwhile, "The God That Failed" and "The Unforgiven" displayed a newfound grooving swagger. Metallica had long written great songs; on Metallica, the band members became great songwriters.
Metallica is, aesthetically speaking, a spectacularly discordant piece of art. It's like Metallica was trapped in a tiny room and pulled in two separate directions as it struggled to grasp the knob to open one door while stretching a leg to push another one shut. (It's even more fun when you imagine the band doing this while producer Bob Rock stands nearby, oscillating between being subtly undermining and openly demeaning.) It was this contest between where the band was going and where it had been that fueled the creativity.
At the same time, Metallica forever meant that references to the band's previous work would always be done in the kind of aching, reverential tones often found in obituaries. Bow your heads quietly and throw the horns as solemnly as you can, the album insinuated. "Old" Metallica has gone to play that big gig in the sky. The band's trademark expanded suites were trimmed, the BPMs slowed. The dudes stopped playing every song in the key of E. They even ditched their picks and played with their fingers!
Reaction to Metallica's release in August of '91 was immediate and enormously divisive. It converted many (like myself; I had spent the previous three years immersed in hip hop), who used the album as an entry point for the band's entire catalogue. Metallica quickly became our imperishable obsession, ultimately delaying our embrace of grunge. (Metallica had such a tight-fisted hold on my tiny, suburban corner of the world that when one friend first saw the video for Temple of the Dog's "Hunger Strike" he initially thought it was a Kirk Hammett side project. He was openly mocked.)
Many long-time fans welcomed the stylistic change, of course. Others didn't react so positively; I knew diehards who got physically angry when listening to the album -- like ball-up-your-fists-and-talk-through-gritted-teeth angry, and they eventually did things like put their "Metal Up Your Ass" T-shirts in mothballs and swear off the band forever. Quotes in the aftermath of the release -- Lars: "We've always thought of ourselves as 'Big Bad Metallica,' but Bob [Rock] taught us a new word none of us had ever heard before: soulful" -- as well as studio anecdotes like Hetfield finding a muse in Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" only reinforced the idea that the group had been swallowed by the commercial abyss and was never, ever coming back.