Classic Album Review : Metallica - ...And Justice for All (1988)
...And Justice for All is one of the most polarizing releases of Metallica's career. It is unanimously loved by critics and fans alike, but few agree on what importance it should have on their legacy. Because it's somewhat of an outlier album that breaks the mold from their earlier sound and that was abandoned soon after. Is ...And Justice for All Metallica's tormented masterpiece or a ferocious, but overindulgent display of musicianship that left aside the catchiness of the earlier records?
Well, there's a little bit of A and a little bit of B. It's a weird album.
Let's first address the elephant in the room, here: One. It is objectively Metallica's best song * and a top 10 (perhaps top 5) greatest metal songs ever written. It's an absolute juggernaut and generally, the only thing non-hardcore Metallica fans remember from ...And Justice for All. Everything about that song is great: the atmospheric intro, the brutally honest lyrics, the allegory between war and depression (whether it was on purpose or not), the dramatic progression from depression to anger fueled by that rifle-like drum transition **. I could talk about One for hours.
But, I have a confession to make. Some of you might pelt me with tomatoes for saying that, but: I'm not that into ...And Justice for All. It's my least favorite of Metallica's legendary first four albums. There are songs I thoroughly enjoy on it, but they're rather front loaded. I love One, Blackened and Eye of the Beholder, which are perhaps the most structured songs on ...And Justice for All and, in the latter two's case, build up to killer choruses. It's something I appreciate and listen to Metallica for, the way they reappropriate themselves conventional songs structures. And they stretch that reappropriation a little too far on ...And Justice for All.
Now, here's the part where I expect you to climb up the walls. The song structure on ...And Justice for All is quite different than on their previous albums. It's a lot more free-flowing and experimental. There are long instrumental parts, different time signatures, multi-part guitar solos, I'm sure it's gorgeous to a musician's ears but as someone who listens to music primarily for entertainment and emotional gratification, I get lost in that. I'm a pure audience. Sometimes, during a guitar solo that ranges from the 4 to 6 minutes mark, I won't be able to tell what song I'm listening to.
I get the uncompromising appeal of making wall-to-wall metal, but several bands are doing that. Metallica was beloved in the eighties because they played with the form instead of obliterating it. Songs like The Shortest Straw and The Frayed Ends of Sanity are great by Metallica's standards, but they all build up to a point where they sound like one another. They don't have a calling card: a memorable riff, a killer chorus, something like that. The Frayed Ends of Sanity has that stupid sailor chant at the beginning, but let's be serious here. Nobody likes that song because of that.
...And Justice for All is a great record. What you think of it reflects more on the person you are and the reasons why you love Metallica than on the actual quality of the music. It's brash, ambitious and uncompromising to a degree Metallica had never committed to before. But except for One, I find it lacks the powerful identity Metallica crafted for themselves from Kill 'Em All to Master of Puppets. It's more of a departure than an evolution. But it's nothing of a departure compared to what would actually follow...
* I slightly prefer Master of Puppets and Creeping Death for personal reasons, but I admit One is musically and dramatically better.
** An old friend of mine who's a professional drummer was explaining me how difficult this part is to nail and how critical it is to the second part of the song. He also told me Lars has yet to nail it again since recording ...And Justice for All. It must've taken a hundred takes in studio.