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Metallica’s Midlife Non-Crisis

The 50-something metal legends have a new album, and it’s a return to gut-punching form

Getty Images
Getty Images

Here now, presented without comment, is the chorus to “Hardwired,” the first song on the new Metallica record.

Sorry, one comment: It’s fuckin’ awesome. Verily, the new Metallica record is titled Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, and so much of what is righteous and lovable and unintentionally hilarious and very intentionally badass about these fellas lies in that ellipsis. Hardwired, dot dot dot, to self-destruct! Boom! Just a little joke! [Lengthy, virile, self-loathing James Hetfield growl.] Pompous, macho, corny, wildly appealing. You roll your eyes as you pump your fist. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a deathstyle. This song rules, dude. Deal with it.

There is much to love about “Hardwired,” namely, every last feral snare crack and galloping double-kick-drum thud from Lars Ulrich, megalomaniac drummer-dictator nonpareil. The lyrical catharsis is, of course, exquisite. Whatever bonkers rationale compelled Hetfield to sing, “We’re so fucked,” it may not be the same reasoning that makes that sentiment so compelling and poignant and viciously apt to you, specifically, at this specific moment in time. But that’s fine. It doesn’t matter. It works for him, and it will work for you. The song’s maniacal efficacy comes down, really, to one thing: It’s just over three minutes long. It gets in and gets out. Like a wrecking ball, in one wall and out the other, not given enough time and chain-length to lose momentum, to hang limp. Brevity is the soul of soullessness.

All four members of Metallica are now in their early 50s. Their last proper record was 2008’s plodding and low-energy Death Magnetic; their last improper record was 2011’s fantastically deranged and gleefully fan-antagonizing double-disc Lou Reed collaboration Lulu. They are the biggest and most successful metal band of all time, though they basically stopped trying to do the pop-crossover thing two decades ago. Metallica — a.k.a. the Black Album, their dizzying commercial peak — is a quarter-century-old now, and the wildly controversial Load and Reload albums that followed later in the ’90s (mired by spiffy haircuts, more pop concessions, cover art that incorporated semen, etc.) have aged far more poorly. (Seriously, yikes.)

They never acted that thirsty again. For a decade or two they just seemed bewildered and ineffectual, but Hardwired is a solidly executed back-to-basics pivot, harkening back to even earlier records like Kill ’Em All and Master of Puppets, a thrashy sound as familiar and comforting now as it was startling and provocative then. They’re no longer trying to Go Pop or convert the unfaithful. They are comfortable, now, in their discomfort-weaponizing niche, trading off their decorated, triumphantly indecorous past. Here they are doing “Enter Sandman” with Jimmy Fallon and the Roots Wednesday night. They get that you would much rather hear the old stuff in new ways than the new stuff. They are at peace. There is very little lightning left to ride.

To wit, the single most compelling work of art they have generated in the 21st century is 2004’s Spinal Tap–made-flesh documentary Some Kind of Monster. The film is a mesmerizing cringe riot detailing the precise mixture of painstaking self-awareness and total buffoonish obliviousness required to be the biggest and most successful metal band of all time. They look like knuckleheads. Sad, dysfunctional, pissed-off knuckleheads. The sound of futilely chill lead guitarist Kirk Hammett slapping himself in the forehead mid-Lars-and-James-argument at 2:50 or so here is eternally delightful. No feral snare crack or galloping kick drum could compare.

It is enough for these fellas, in 2016, to no longer be the butt of the joke. The only Metallica-related thing funnier than Some Kind of Monster is this legendary fan parody of the band’s reviled 2003 album St. Anger, which became infamous for a bizarre and unbearable drum sound, as if Lars’s 10,000-piece kit had been surreptitiously replaced with eight poorly turned folding chairs. I just cry-laughed at this thing for 10 minutes, not for the first time. “Back to our roots, these songs are LONG-AAH / And there are FAST PARTS / So that AUTOMATICALLY MEANS THAT THEY’RE GOOD.”

The FAST PARTS are less nutso this time, but it’s notable that no other song on Hardwiredto Self-Destruct is content with lasting a mere three minutes and change. The platonic ideal, apparently, is six or seven minutes, the better to follow the no-bullshit, return-to-form formula precisely. Slow-burn, riff-packed intro. Hetfield’s barked vocals barging in after a minute or so, establishing the lyrical theme: self-annihilating celebrity on “Moth Into Flame,” apocalypse on “Dream No More,” tough-guy rhetorical questions on “Am I Savage?”, revenge on “Here Comes Revenge.” (For you Motörhead fans, “Murder One” is a straight Lemmy tribute.) There is always a chorus snappy enough to register as a chorus, but other than “Hardwired,” which likely has a few too many 10-pound swears to close the deal, none are ingratiating enough to get them back on the radio. There is often, if you are lucky, a daffy and hostile Kirk Hammett solo, designed as always to inflict tendonitis on all you air guitar enthusiasts. Perhaps a bit of nimble, deceptively placid minor-key guitar picking, too, a la “Enter Sandman.” And finally, a quick-burning gonzo outro, Ulrich going berserk if he hasn’t done so already.

You can set your doomsday clock to this stuff, the pace speedy but unhurried, soothing in its menace and thrilling in its tedium. Hardwired could use more three-minute drive-bys, or one ludicrous, polarizing, 20-minute bout of Lulu-adjacent lunacy. But that it all gets a little same-y is an essential part of the vibe. “Halo on Fire,” terse and sprawling in equal measure, does the job as well as anything here, which is to say it does fine, just fine. (Yeah, Metallica made a video for every song on this record, and they are mostly hella boring.)

If you’re in it for the yuks, you’ll find them: There’s a song here called “ManUNkind,” for crying out loud, and Hetfield’s lyrics, deadly serious and magnificently dour, never disappoint. “Spit Out the Bone” suggests that he recently binged on either Black Mirror or the Terminator movies or both: ”Long live machine / The future supreme / Man overthrown / Spit out the bone.” Gnarly, dude.

What you won’t find, mercifully, are ballads. Recall (or don’t) that Death Magnetic had a song called “The Unforgiven III,” for crying out loud, the second botched sequel to one of their better peak-era slow jams. We are reverting to core principles here. Digging in and bedding down. No one will make an angry, high-comical parody song about this record. That’s too bad. Metallica are always fun as villains, as polarizing self-saboteurs. But this being the safe play doesn’t make it the wrong one. That Hardwired’s gestures are uniformly familiar doesn’t make them empty.

It’s tempting to make the easy joke and say that “Confusion” is about confusion, but in truth it seems to be about PTSD, making it a grim and empathetic sequel to the old MTV-borne …And Justice for All smash “One.” Hetfield’s lyrics don’t necessarily work as poetry: “Leave the battlefield / Yet its horrors never heal / Coming home from war / Pieces don’t fit anymore / Make it go away / Please make it go away.” But poetry was never this band’s strength, or concern. This song isn’t great enough to top charts or playlists, and it isn’t terrible or idiosyncratic enough to trigger another fan mutiny. But I’m glad they wrote it. They have a point, and you get it, and you can still, if you please, mosh to it. We might be fucked, so we might as well go down headbanging. Please support your neck.

An earlier version of this story misidentified vocals on Hardwired… to Self-Destruct. They are from James Hetfield, not Kirk Hammett.