Album Review : Metallica - Death Magnetic (2008)
Metallica hasn’t released a culturally significant album since 1991. But it hasn’t stopped them from being a culturally significant band ever since. People seem to love Metallica unconditionally and keep wishing they make another “good” album, like a domestic abuse victim wishes for their spouse to eventually “change”. The band members aren’t completely deaf to this. After a decade of failures that climaxed with the unlistenable St. Anger in 2003, Metallica were determined to “get back to their roots”. That’s how Death Magnetic came into existence. Is it bad? No. It’s the first listenable Metallica album in 25 years. Is it weird? Oh, fuck… plenty.
The first thing anyone who loves Metallica will notice on Death Magnetic is that the sludgy, mid-tempo guitars are gone. After boring us to death on Load, Reload and St. Anger, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield seem happy to play their instrument again. The songs are still 5 to 10 minutes long, but they’re multisegmented, feature elaborate and impassioned guitar solos and show at least a hint of their eighties grit. Death Magnetic sounds like Metallica are emerging from their own grave. But the more you listen to it, the more it feels like they’ve turned into a zombie of their former selves. It goes through the motions without any of the emotional urgency that once made the band special.
It’s probably everyone’s fault for writing an entire album that sounds like B sides from …And Justice for All, but James Hetfield’s lyrics are particularly ear-splitting. They ruin a perfectly punchy and well-structured songs like All Nightmare Long, by… well, making middle-aged suburban dad puns like “all nightmare long”. Seriously, it’s disquieting to listen to what James is actually singing on these songs.
The Judas Kiss is another catchy song ruined by lyrics written by his dead youth: When you think it’s all said and done/When you are ostracized/Selfish ridden dead goodbyes/Twisting the tourniquet/When the pieces never fit. Hetfield used to write lengthy, ambitious and allegorical songs, but now they’re just lengthy.
Although it’s infinitely better than St. Anger, I hardly believe Death Magnetic is what fans actually want out of Metallica. It’s not because you left the bottom of the barrel that you’re good again. They’re obviously giving the fans “what they want” which is a catch-22, because the fans want Creeping Death, Master of Puppets and One again, so the exercise of “playing selflessly” like they do on Death Magnetic is ultimately meaningless.
Outside of The Day That Never Comes, which I wouldn’t call a great Metallica song, none of the material on Death Magnetic has a strong identity. They’re songs that vaguely resemble what they did earlier in their career. People will remember them the same way they remember The Shortest Straw or To Live is to Die on …And Justice for All. Barely.
So, I’m torn on Death Magnetic. It should’ve made me happy, but it didn’t, like the dead boyfriend replica made from scraps of Tweets and emails in dystopian television show Black Mirror. It felt good to hear Metallica play with ravenous pleasure again, but it didn’t feel right. If I wanted to hear Metallica played with ravenous pleasure, I would go see a cover band play the song I already know and like. I’m almost at the end of this Metallica retrospective and I’m starting to believe they’re on a path of no return. Metallica is facing expectations that could only be met using time travel to get back to their former selves and I’m not even sure they would if it existed.