Spiraling Toward Irrelevancy

Never has a blog title spoken quicker to the absolute truth than "Spiraling Toward Irrelevancy" ...


Music Review: Death Magnetic by Metallica

The first clue that Metallica had begun taking itself seriously again came when it announced Rick Rubin had been hired to produce its next album. In doing this it (finally) shunned bubble gum producer Bob Rock, whose ignominious claim to fame is sitting stoically as the greatest heavy metal band in the world recorded pop song after pop song, released horrific album after horrific album, was summarily surpassed by Pantera, then Slipknot, and finally by a wide variety of more thoughtful rock bands (e.g., Tool, The White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age). By the time it released the appalling St. Anger in June 2003, Metallica had relegated itself to a quivering, pointless mess.

But the thought of Rick Rubin sitting in on the recording sessions gave fans hope. In the liner notes for his album 12 Songs, Neil Diamond wrote that Rubin pushed him to write better songs, entering the studio only when the songs met his, meaning Rubin’s, exacting standards. For those who hoped Metallica would someday return to something resembling its former self, Rubin was looked upon as a savior. (Think Barack Obama, if he’d actually spent his entire career accomplishing meaningful things.)

The end result is Death Magnetic, the first indication since 1991 that the band also has some interest in reverting to its once great state of being. It doesn’t quite turn the corner, and likely can’t, but at least the effort if genuine.

First, the bad: Death Magnetic is an abject failure lyrically. “The Unforgiven III,” for example, is lyrically about as silly as man in his mid-forties should ever sound; same with “All Nightmare Long” and “The Day That Never Comes.” (Thankfully, “The Day That Never Comes” concludes with a scathing three minute jam, which is about as solid and interesting a piece of music as Metallica has ever recorded.)

Thanks to the weepy, therapy ridden, male PMS-infused documentary Some Kind of Monster, we know that for the album St. Anger, the band arrived at a sort of lyrics-by-committee set up, so everyone could feel they were actually contributing (or something). To the filmmaker’s credit, we see Kirk Hammett reading aloud his legitimately brilliant gift to what became the worst rock album of the decade so far (“My lifestyle / determines my death style”). Unknown whether this lyrical process remained in place for Death Magnetic, but if so, it deserves to be scrapped when, and if, it comes time to record another album.

At various points I found myself rolling my eyes and breathing irritated sighs – far too many of the lyrics read like bad poetry written by fifteen-year-olds. One hopes the band stumbles across some arcane socialist writer from the late nineteenth century, and starts ripping him off. (Say what you want about socialists: They’re wrong and frequently smell bad, but at least they’re interesting.)

Next, the good: Musically, Death Magnetic is the best album Metallica has recorded since its legendary 1988 album … And Justice for All. In fact, despite a ten minute instrumental and the majority of the songs clocking in at well over seven minutes, there were several times when I hoped James Hetfield would stop singing altogether, because he’s often stepping on the music.

All but “The Unforgiven III” are at least musically interesting, and in many cases provocative. When it comes to songs like “The Day That Never Comes” (the aforementioned three minute jam) and “All Nightmare Long,” the stellar quality of the music seems to erase almost entirely the terrible lyrics. Same with the first three tracks – “That Was Just Your Life,” “The End of the Line,” and “Broken Beat and Scarred,” which are merely mediocre lyrically.

I will back away from earlier private assertions that Death Magnetic could be the album of the year. Taken as a whole, it doesn’t come close enough to a sustained standard of excellence. But this album is the first must-own Metallica offering in two decades, and “The Judas Kiss” is a strong frontrunner for song of the year.

Incidentally: Yes, Rick Rubin saved Metallica.

Passable: “That Was Just Your Life” (track one); “The End of the Line” (track two); “Broken Beat and Scarred” (track three).

Not So Much: “All Nightmare Long” (track five) and “Cyanide” (track six).

Horrible: “The Unforgiven III” (track seven).

Horrible and Great: “The Day That Never Comes” (track four) – the first five minutes are godawful, the last three are genius.

Great: “The Judas Kiss” (track eight); “Suicide and Redemption” (track nine); “My Apocalypse” (track ten).