Thirty years ago this week, Metallica released their fifth studio album, the self-titled Metallica, commonly referred to as “the black album.” Like most of Metallica’s music, the black album is an encouragement to face hardship head-on. Metal’s appeal, at least to me, has always been how it channels anger–and especially male anger–toward a new understanding of our messed-up world and our own messed-up circumstances. Like wandering through a catacomb, metal helps sublimate the grotesque. But on the black album, Metallica decided for the first time to craft their songs in a more accessible form than in the past. The result was the greatest commercial success they would ever experience, to go along with their previous critical acclaim.
I was eleven years old when Metallica came out. I was obsessed with music, sneaking as much MTV as I could, and I was both enthralled with and terrified by Metallica. I was also a devoted evangelical Christian on the cusp of experiencing the breakdown of my family. As I headed into a decade of adolescent spiritual wandering, the black album quickly became a source of cathartic relief, and it remains so now. As a tribute, I offer a reflection on the album’s twelve tracks that made metal mainstream and still invite contemplation atypical of today’s popular music.
“Enter Sandman” has one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in rock history, and it is therefore one of the most famous opening tracks to any record ever produced. The song was a huge radio hit, and some fans considered it Metallica’s big sell-out moment. (I think that moment truly came a few years later, but then they returned to form.) The lyrics build on the band’s collective interest in the horror movie genre, musing on various nightmare scenarios against a spoken-word backdrop of a child praying, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep . . .” Life can be scary, and the unconscious state affects our waking reality in ways we cannot fully know; but fortunately, “exit light, enter night” is never the final word. Metallica reminds us here that it is probably much worse for our souls when we ignore the darkness rather than stand up to it.
“Sad But True” was designed to be the “Kashmir of the 90s,” an homage to the heavy 70s anthem by Metallica’s heroes, Led Zeppelin. Metallica’s prior three album titles were named after the second track on each record, leading many to think that this self-titled endeavor could possibly be properly understood as the “Sad But True” album. James Hetfield based his lyrics in part on the 1978 movie Magic, written by William Goldman, about a possessed ventriloquist dummy who controls his master. But Hetfield’s words may also be about his own sense of alienation from the binary struggles of one person’s right versus another person’s wrong. Hetfield sings,
You (you), you’re my mask, you’re my cover, my shelter
You (you), you’re my mask, you’re the one who’s blamed
Do (do), do my work, do my dirty work, scapegoat
Do (do), do my deeds for you’re the one who’s shamed.
Although there is no evidence that anyone in Metallica has ever read the writings of René Girard, his ideas related to mimetic rivalry express similar ideas to those found in “Sad But True,” albeit in a higher philosophical register.
“Holier Than Thou” was originally planned as the first track to be put out to the public, but it was never released as a single in the end. It is one of several songs on the album with overtly religious themes, and it has a fast tempo and a thrash energy only slightly smoothed over compared to an earlier, rougher Metallica sound. “Holier Than Thou” remains a headbanger’s favorite at concerts today. The lyrics are reminiscent of “Leper Messiah,” a track from Master of Puppets that excoriates grifter televangelists; but this time, Metallica shoots at the broader, timeless target of religious hypocrisy. The band proposes a variation of Christ’s words from Matthew 7:1, “Before you judge me take a look at you. Can’t you find something better to do. . . . Judge not lest ye be judged yourself.”
“The Unforgiven” is one of a couple of tracks that completely sets the album apart from anything Metallica had done before. For starters, James Hetfield really sings instead of screams on this one, apparently taking inspiration from Chris Isaak’s beautiful, haunting song “Wicked Game.” The music incorporates old west motifs within the slower, heavy rhythm, creating a storytelling backdrop akin to the scores of Ennio Morricone. Hetfield’s lyrics are a heart-wrenching exploration of his own broken relationship with his father, and it is the first in a trilogy of “Unforgiven” songs in Metallica’s catalog. Having struggled with my own father issues as a young man, I decided to sing “Unforgiven” at a church talent show when I was in the seventh grade. Naturally, a few people thought it was weird for a kid to be belting out “I dub thee unforgiven” at a youth group event. Of course, my dad was not there to hear it, and I’ve long ago forgiven him for his many absences and our many misunderstandings; but it still feels good to remember that my experiences growing up were not unique.
“Wherever I May Roam” was another hit single, featuring a typically fantastic guitar riff, but played at the beginning of the song on a sitar, with an accompanying gong. The lyrics evoke the image of a wizard-type wanderer who has perhaps read more than his share of Ayn Rand. Again, Metallica’s lyrics are often about powering through difficulty; and although it’s folly to try to be a superman, sometimes it can be encouraging to remember you can take some degree of control when you need to. Alternatively, we could imagine a selfless Franciscan sensibility in lyrics like “The less I have the more I gain, off the beaten path I reign.” The song concludes with the idea of spiritual development after death, surely to be taken in any number of New Age ways, but not altogether incompatible with Catholic theology: “Carved upon my stone, My body lies but still I roam.”
“Don’t Tread On Me” begins with a militaristic drum cadence, and it surprises us with a variation on “America” from West Side Story in the opening riff. Critics found the lyrics too jingoistic, and the band has never played it live. Hetfield’s voice sounds great on this track; and although it’s far from my favorite Metallica song, it hits home in a new way these days.
“Through the Never” has thrashy guitar parts both in the rhythm and the leads that convey the feeling of a typical Metallica song from any era. The lyrics once again focus on spiritual themes. It is not clear what “the Never” is, but it is certainly not an atheist black hole of meaninglessness. When Hetfield sings, “In the dark, see past our eyes, Pursuit of truth no matter where it lies,” we may think of the apophatic tradition of Catholic mysticism. That is, in contemplating the mystery of what God is not, we may arrive at deeper understanding and more fervent devotion.
“Nothing Else Matters” is a simple love song, a waltz that evokes the lush acoustic beginnings to classic Metallica album-openers like “Fight Fire with Fire,” “Battery,” and “Blackened.” But whereas those songs quickly change gears, becoming heavy and speedy, “Nothing Else Matters” progresses as a true rock ballad with orchestration to boot. It is surely Hetfield’s best vocal track ever, and he even takes the guitar solo instead of Kirk Hammett on this one. The lyrics were meant for Hetfield’s girlfriend, but the weight of Hetfield’s sentiments go far beyond a human relationship, opening up the longing of every human soul and evoking the nearness of other-worldly love. Hetfield sings, “So close no matter how far, Couldn’t be much more from the heart, Forever trusting who we are, And nothing else matters.” It might be my very favorite Metallica song.
“Of Wolf and Man” is an aggressive track with lyrics expressing the blend of sci-fi imagination and machismo designed to fire up the host of unattached men who overwhelmingly buy Metallica’s records and attend their shows. In 1991, this track might have seemed too nerdy for the mainstream; but thirty years later, movies and shows about shapeshifting and animal-human mutation are so commonplace that Metallica seems a little ahead of their time. The band has always loved H.P. Lovecraft and has used themes from his works for inspiration back when Lovecraft was still an extremely niche offering. Nowadays, anyone with a streaming service sees his name and others like him pop up regularly.
“The God that Failed” rocks very hard, and the lyrics are Hetfield’s cri-de-cœur about his mother’s premature death from cancer. A Christian Scientist, Hetfield’s mother did not seek conventional medical treatment, leading Hetfield to intense bitterness about prayer, as well as the people who rely on it for healing. Hetfield sings,
I see faith in your eyes
Never you hear the discouraging lies
I hear faith in your cries
Broken is the promise, betrayal
The healing hand held back by the deepened nail
It simply will not do for Catholics to hold up a more sophisticated, orthodox view of the problem of evil to counter heartfelt doubt with an explainer about what the Church actually teaches. We can only process our own losses alongside Hetfield’s pain and pray that we may all receive grace to believe in the reality of God instead of the many poor man-made substitutes. The album’s producer, Bob Rock, said of Hetfield’s motivation in writing the song, “The God That Failed is deep. It’s not just a cheap shot at religion; it’s him tackling the subject in a very complex manner.”
“My Friend of Misery” is an atmospheric track like the late B-side cuts on most of Metallica’s other albums. The guitar work features a heavy rhythm and the kind of noodly solos beloved by listeners who aspire to play on a big stage themselves someday. Jason Newstead’s bass work is particularly striking, and the lyrics fall somewhere between a psalm of lament (like Psalm 88) and a word-picture evoking Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
“The Struggle Within” features military drums again, and the lyrics sum up the album’s whole endeavor: everything is about what’s going on inside us. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
Listening to Metallica thirty years later is a dive into darkness that leads ultimately back to a brighter light. Heavy metal is not everyone’s cup of tea, nor are Metallica’s lyrics easily edifying. But for those who enjoy a noisy walk into the shadows from time to time, albums like this one are a great catalyst for theological reflection. The lasting power of this record is especially evident in the forthcoming collection of 53 cover versions of the songs recorded by artists from various musical backgrounds to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary.
Re-visit Metallica for a journey into your own heart.