Music

Metallica’s latest album brings all the energies of the band’s contradictions to a sense of middle-age crisis. By John Kinsella.

Metallica’s 72 Seasons

The four members of Metallica stand in front of a yellow light.
Metallica members (from left) Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield and Robert Trujillo.
Credit: Tim Saccenti

Metallica can always surprise, and there are surprises on their new album 72 Seasons that are compelling. After all, this is a monster of a band that controls stadiums but also had the musical nous to work with Lou Reed.

Can we ever forget the meaning of words and just go with their emphasis and tonality? Possibly: it’s why I can engage with Metallica when I generally get very little from their lyrics. The drive – the semioperatic evocation and parsing of musical phrases – of a mood that’s often threatening and dark has worked for me over the years. The lack of politics – or rather, conservative-inflected politics, whatever the varied views of the different band members, dressed up as non-politics – is lost in the energy of the pulse and surge of the music. Maybe this is a problem.

The track “If Darkness Had a Son” from 72 Seasons is an example of the word taking a lot of weight. We wind into the lyrics, where the word “temptation” becomes an extra instrument lassoed by lead guitar, along with those characteristic choppy rhythms, with “I bathe in holy water” a sonorous addendum. The demi-religious underpinnings are ultimately just markers of genre. The aim isn’t a critique of religion – rather, it’s the evocation of symbols to create mood and atmosphere, and possibly to make a point about the vulnerability of the soul. These motifs are familiar metal brands: the music evokes the words more than the words evoke the music. Kirk Hammett’s lead guitar wails and runs like its life depends upon it. Such tracks, which are not short, leave you both exhausted and slightly exhilarated.

I’m not of the club that damns Lars Ulrich’s drumming. I think this album shows that he can perfectly deploy something like Meg White’s simplicity, dropping in the speed metal moments and shockwave fills when the song demands and keeping the beat moving at a sustained pace. While this album does not have the musical genius of Master of Puppets or The Black Album – in which the “Enter Sandman” lyrics lift into something entire in themselves – or the in-your-face, rapid-fire embroilments of the track “St. Anger” from the album of the same name, it’s solid – and occasionally roars into better than solid.

72 Seasons – that’s four seasons a year for 18 years – is a strange melange of misery and joy, of depression and life affirmation. The title track itself, for all its furious “feeding on the wrath of man”, is almost a declaration of embracing existence. Hammett’s lead guitar warps its way rapidly through James Hetfield’s jerky and strangely melodic rhythm and around Robert Trujillo’s gutturally impelling bass. The opening of “Screaming Suicide”, a song I have problems with on all sorts of levels, is disturbingly compelling, hooking you in from lead to rhythm via bass and those jump-cut drum rhythms.

One has to wonder if this album is an expression of a group crisis or a set of personal crises, or if it’s an attempt at some kind of artistic resolution. Hetfield talks of the band’s more inclusive songwriting process, which takes us places that maybe we haven’t been before. But there are old tones in there as well, including some echoes of Dave Mustaine’s early guitar work and even of Mustaine’s band, Megadeth.

Mostly it’s signature Metallica. So much of their music is about fear and a desperate search for reassurance, with lead breaks allowing us to wander freely while the prison of rhythm keeps us in check. “You Must Burn!” has a doom-laden Black Sabbath digression midsong that erupts into complex and digressive guitar motifs, only to fall back into the drone of drab, clichéd lyrics (“you are the witch, you must burn”). Near the end of “Sleepwalk My Life Away”, one of their best, the song switches again and leads us somewhere else, although we’re not sure where.

Hetfield’s voice always sounds so accusatory and contradictory. But maybe this is part of the internal differences of Metallica, too. Hetfield, a hunter and gun lover, was unfussed that the band’s music was used at Guantanamo Bay to torture prisoners, literally laughing at the “torture thing” in an interview. Compare that with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who said of his music being used this way: “It’s difficult for me to imagine anything more profoundly insulting, demeaning and enraging than discovering music you’ve put your heart and soul into creating has been used for purposes of  torture.”

So, intense contradictions. “Lux Æterna” is a romping, raging song: the heart quickens, the light flares and the mind turns off. And strangely, there’s a euphoria that runs contrary to the lyrics – though that shout of “emancipation” never really feels like it is.

Is it possible to let words be music and the music itself take the weight of meaning? Listening to metal bands, I am always troubled by this question. “Crown of Barbed Wire” – such a metal title! – again starts with the ominous and breaks free into something lachrymose but vibrant, which is straight out of the Sabbath songbook but with that Metallica shout-melody. “Barbed wire” is uttered as the lead guitar rises and then we fall into the drum and bass – a formula, but Metallica’s formula.

But I do love that whirring lead guitar, even as it’s chopped up by Trujillo’s bass. “Chasing Light” captures another Metallica theme – the nature of light as freedom and guidance, its loss as malevolence, threat and vulnerability. Contradictions at work again: the angst and hope that’s buried in the lift of the music, and its repetitions, sureties – “without darkness, there is no light”. This is about maleness and mentors and being lost: the “fight”, the “chase”, the “end it all” intertwined through the fractures.

The final track, “Inamorata”, runs for more than 11 minutes and is a grand finale, the ars poetica of the album. “Misery / She needs me / But I need her more” epitomises the gendered implosion of the project, while also buying into the idea that metal fans take misery as a given. But here is misery with the promise of a relationship – “she” needs the protagonist in this drama of life. It’s a strange kind of affirmation, the refrain of 72 Seasons. But the music on this track, especially around the seven-minute mark, is actually quite beautiful, even sensitive.

To whom is a Metallica song speaking? One might expect every song to have a different addressee, but there is a sense of the “me” and “you” simply being the singer and the listener. Metallica is a massive project: it is a business, a brand and a strange sort of collective, and it’s also a smokescreen for imposing personalities.

In short, 72 Seasons reads as a kind of late-middle-age crisis, even as it suggests an opening to an adventurous future. But it still resonates with the motif of their early song “One”: where “darkness imprisons me” meets an “SOS”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "Metal fatigue".

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