The NY Times wrote an excellent in-depth article on Metallica last week that every music fan should check out. I always prefer these more evenhanded, emotionally detatched stories to the die-hard fans of the music press. It gives me a better chance to see my favorite musicians from an outside view, one that is still musically informed and respectful. I should also confess to complete burnout on the endless fan complaining of Metallica's career since 1991's Black Album propelled them to rock superstars.
As I'm sure you know if you plow through this blog, I've been a dedicated fan of Metallica since starting college way back in 1991. I've been the loyal fan who has loved everything, or at least liked and respected everything, that has come down the pike. Still, there's no denying that the world's most successful hard rock band has struggled for the past decade. There has only been one studio album in ten years, the 2003 garage rust of St. Anger - an album that has become an unecessary whipping boy for many of the frustrations built up against Metallica over the years.
The last burst of creativity were the twin '70s rock albums, 1996's Load and 1997's Re-Load, and those albums will always be lightning rods for frustration and criticism over just what the "Metallica sound" should be, and just why the hell they have to wander around so much. Perhaps this is attitude due to my generation's cliquishness and cultural segregation. Maybe I just heard something different in their music. Strangely enough, I heard the same musical landscapes in Load that I heard years earlier with 1984's Ride the Lightning. Maybe you only heard speed metal riffs and ignored the mellow or strange parts. I tuned in for the mellow strangeness.
Still, it's easy to appreciate why so many see Metallica as a band in decline, or certainly past their prime. It's a great frustration considering the brilliance of their music, a legacy matched only by Led Zeppelin. "The Zeppelin of our generation" has been adrift for a very long time, and I don't think many of us are ready to say goodbye to our youths just yet. Enter another round of "sellout" bashing, of having to deal with the fact that we're now in our thirties and fourties.
This is why I believe Metallica's tenth studio album, Death Magnetic, will be hailed as a triumph. It certainly will be seen as a comeback, a return to form, the sleeping dinosaurs roaring again and shaming an entire generation of rock 'n roll groups that weren't even alive when they started. It also achieves the same feat as U2, in that the musical wanderings are brought back into the fold, fused with the classic early sound. In this sense, Death Magnetic is past, present and future all at once. The hardcore old-schoolers will love it. They damn well better, provided they can bring this endless civil war to peace.
Metallica has been defined by tabloid fodder for so many years - Napster, rehab, Jason Newsted's departure, the documentary - that we've almost forgotten what the music sounded like. I've almost forgotten what it felt like to listen to a new Metallica album. Those were cherished experiences, putting the CD into the Discman and throwing on the headphones. My first listen with Load back in '96 was a revelatory excursion, an astonishing trip of ups and downs. I've forgotten that feeling, that sense of surprise, that thrill and excitement. It's the excitement of youth, of the future, of endless possibility.
I expect many Metallica fans feel the same way about their favorite albums, whichever those are. And I think we all share the sadness that it's been so long since we shared that thrill. And there's nothing wrong with that; it's all part of growing up and growing old. Most of the bands and musicians who upturned the pop world in 1991 are gone. We still have the Chili Peppers, we still have Pearl Jam. Dave Grohl still carries the torch for our dearly departed Saint Cobain. Most everybody has moved on, gone grey, raised families. Me, I'm still wondering how and when my hair turned silver. Forget grey. We're long past that.
But Metallica is different, dammit! That's my stubborn resistance, and that's where I draw the line. If one band of my era deserves to be playing into their old age, ala Rolling Stones, it's this band.
So where does the new Death Magnetic fit in? I happen to think it's a fantastic album. You don't expect veterans to make their best work this far into the game; you just root for a solid double. Death Magnetic is a grand slam, just as U2's How to Dismantle a Nuclear Bomb and Pearl Jam's untitled album knocked 'em out. You are remind you why these artists are important; you are reminded you why these are the giants, the living legends.
I don't yet know whether this is my own personal nostalgia talking. I'll need a year or so to find that out. This may just be hopeful thinking, an emotional need, like a high school reunion. It's nice to see old friends again, but it's clear there's no going back. Heck, I was just about the only one who liked St. Anger, playing it incessantly for months and fiercely defending those trashcan drums. So I'm not the best critic. I'm a fan. I'm family.
All I can offer is that the songs on Death Magnetic, this past week, have been my emotional lifeline. These songs were just about the only thing keeping me from coming apart at the seams. There's a reason why I've been on a tear about the RNC in St. Paul. This weeklong assault by the American Police State has been traumatic. Having no one understand or believe you is the deepest pain of all. Either they don't get it or they don't want to get it. But I'm cool with that now. The squares of repressed America don't count. Metallica gets it.