What Are We Rejecting When We Reject St. Anger? Metallica’s Mid-Life Crisis At Twenty

Is it time to re-evaluate Metallica's least-loved album and celebrate it for the extraordinary work that it is? But enough about Lulu. Keith Kahn-Harris wants to talk about St. Anger…

There is a contrarian impulse in music criticism just as there is in the wider public sphere; an impulse as ironically predictable in its inevitability. Rest assured that The Quietus is not Spiked and I am not Brendan O’Neil. I am not about to argue that St. Anger is a lost masterpiece. Much of the torrent of criticism it has received justifiably points out its flaws:

The bizarre, clanging drum sound.
The directionlessness meandering of most of the songs.
The lack of solos to leaven the riff salad.
The artless, almost-adolescent ‘honesty’ of the lyrics.

And on top of that there is the state of Metallica in 2003, exposed in pitiless detail in the 2004 documentary Some Kind Of Monster:

The bickering.
The self-indulgence.
The ‘coach’.
The embarrassment of meeting with Dave Mustaine.
Kirk Hammett trying to write lyrics.
Lars Ulrich mourning his art collection.

What is there left to say? Well first of all we have to acknowledge that, yes, St. Anger does have its defenders. In comment threads concerned the album, you will usually find someone piping up with a spirited defence. It isn’t completely excised from Metallica’s live repertoire. In 2014, fans actually voted they play the title track on eight occasions (the first time they’d played it since 2006) on the ‘By Request’ tour. This was such an unexpected outcome that one metal website speculated that fans were trolling the band.

When it came out St. Anger enjoyed good reviews from some critics, often those who were floored by the sheer aggression of the album. The title track even won a Grammy in 2004. But once the dust settled, even many of those who initially supported the album turned against it. One example of this negative turn can be found in Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood’s Into The Black: The Inside Story of Metallica, 1991-2014. One of the authors (the book doesn’t say which), in a kind of mea culpa, confesses to initially being blown away by St. Anger and saying as much in the rock press:

So certain is this opinion that just weeks later the first Metallica feature to be published since 2001 features the sentence, ‘“St. Anger” is the finest thing to which the band have [ever] put their name.’ As is now known, St. Anger the album is in fact the worst thing to which Metallica have put their name.

That volta-face is symptomatic of what has now become the orthodoxy: St. Anger is a bad album; one that endangered the band’s reputation and, for some, destroyed in utterly.

Actually it’s bigger than just St. Anger. Since at least the early 1990s, Metallica have been a band dogged by the frustration of many of their own fans. Negative reactions to St. Anger weren’t the start of it. There are Metallica fans who, variously, think the band lost it after the raw thrash of Kill ‘Em All, after the weirdly bass-less production of …And Justice For All, after the mainstream success of Metallica, after the turn towards hard rock on Load and Reload, and so, inevitably, on.

There is an entire subculture of YouTubers ‘rewriting’ Metallica, adding bass to …And Justice, showing what Hardwired would sound like if it was produced like Master Of The Puppets, satirical attempts to show what Meshuggah (or any other metal band) would sound like if Lars Ulrich drummed for them. St. Anger has even been re-recorded entirely, fixing those pesky drums and much else.

While this discontented obsessiveness can sometimes produce enjoyable music criticism and interesting musical experiments, there is something about it that bothers me. And the orthodoxy that St. Anger is beyond redemption bothers me most of all. The contempt, the smugness and the ‘go on, impress me’ attitude, seem somehow cruel.

Maybe this cruelty is baked into the founding assumptions of rock culture and rock criticism.

It is artists who have to do the work, rather than listeners; if an artistic experiment fails, fans have absolutely no obligation to stick with it; fans owe artists nothing by right. Maybe all rock culture is, is a kind of holiday from the common decency that most of us are perfectly capable of in our everyday lives.

Aside from the cruelty, there is also hypocrisy at work in some of the criticism of St. Anger. The clanging drum sounds are commonplace in some genres, such as industrial music. The riffsaladification on St. Anger is perfectly standard in death metal, for example. It is utterly bizarre when those who have no problem listening to Neurosis or Converge dismisses St. Anger as somehow unlistenable.

I recognise, though, that it is difficult to make the case for treating multi-millionaires with sensitivity; particularly multi-millionaires who have a track record of self-indulgent artistic decisions; particularly multi-millionaires who have themselves acted selfishly and cruelly (to wives and partners, to Dave Mustaine, to each other). Yet it isn’t so much Metallica I am worried about so much as ourselves…

So what is it we are rejecting when we reject St. Anger?

Even their fiercest critics would concede that Metallica put an extraordinary amount of painful effort into the album. The term ‘mid-life crisis’ is often a term of ridicule and abuse; but it shouldn’t be. On St. Anger, Ulrich and Hetfield in particular were confronted by a terrifying question: What now? Where do you go when you look back in your middle years having achieved everything you could ever have dreamed about? James Hetfield’s answer was to try and become a better man, to quit drinking and leching, to be a father and a husband. For Lars Ulrich, the answer was to double-down on the terrifying love he had for his band, and to do anything it would take to keep it together. Metallica had to try and be brave, to accept that things needed to change, to accept that old working patterns might need to be broken, to shake things up.

They sought that bravery in sonic harshness. Retreating from their flirtations with classic rock, they doubled down on the untrammelled riff. St. Anger acknowledges that personal growth is less a flight from one’s self so much as a burrowing deep into the bedrock of the self. The album is the hardest thing they have ever made. Doesn’t that deserve at least some consideration?

What would happen if we had the bravery to put in as much painful toil into listening to St. Anger as Metallica did in making it? What would happen if we treated amusement as little more than an optional extra in fan experience? I, a Metallica fan, have been trying to conduct such experiments for several years now. I have been regularly listening to St. Anger not because I want to but because I want to see what happens if I listened as if I owed Metallica a debt.

The results? Well, I still don’t enjoy the album. I still start to zone out of the whole unrelenting mess after a while. I still don’t remember all the names of the tracks. And yet, precisely because the album is so gruelling, with every listen I grab hold of the occasional striking moment, and over time their isolated brilliance has begun to shine out:

The pummelling intro to ‘Shoot Me Again’

James Hetfield’s voice cracking and wavering in ‘All Within My Hands’

The unrelenting empathy in the lyrics to ‘Invisible Kid’

The crushing lead riff to ‘Some Kind Of Monster’

St. Anger contains shards of something greater than itself. And perhaps the ‘failure’ to bring coherence to the whole is an honourable failure. It is certainly a brave failure.

Is this ‘enough’? From the point of view of entertainment, no it isn’t. Yet from the point of view of the ethics of listening, it has to be. The reason to listen to St. Anger is to commune with a group of people at their lowest ebb who are bravely trying to recover; to search for those precious moments where they (re)discover themselves before losing them again; to experience for oneself that oscillation between frustration and transcendence that the band experienced.

Perhaps this kind of listening is something that used to come more naturally. St. Anger appeared at the pivot point between a time when music required financial commitment and a time of cost-free choice. One of the reasons my experiment is so hard is that, by the time I get to track four (‘Dirty Window’) I start to get tempted by all the sonic pleasures that I could be enjoying a couple of swipes away. It’s not as though I ever paid for the album. Even though I do still buy music (usually on Bandcamp), the temptations of musical laziness never let up.

But having made the case for a braver, more committed and more ethical kind of listening, I do have to concede that it is particularly hard to accomplish in the case of Metallica. One of the most maddening aspects of much of the band’s body of work – not just St. Anger – is that it’s very hard to distinguish deliberate artistic decisions from terrible artistic mistakes. The strength of Lars Ullrich’s personality, his arrogance even, means that from their earliest days the band could steamroller over the objections of producers and record company executives. At the same time, Metallica have never resolved whether they want to be edgy and daring experimenters or populist rock Gods. Their flaws and their brilliance both derive from this peculiar combination of self-belief as innovators and a lack of awareness of their limitations.

You can hear the band’s confusion and ambivalence on the eponymous title track on St. Anger. That the song is a mixture of brutal riffage and other, more melodic sections is not in and of itself the issue – that’s commonplace in metalcore and other metal genres – the problem is that the various components of the song don’t seem to be speaking to each other; nothing gels. There seem to be competing tendencies at play on ‘St. Anger’, one that would blast out grinding riffage and one that would croon confessional grunge. Alternatively, were Ulrich and Hetfield trying to ape the sound of breakdown-heavy bands like Slipknot, without fully understanding them? It’s hard to believe that the song was designed to end up as it did.

Metallica are a hard band to trust. It’s telling that even one of their most adored albums still bewilders fans and critics. The lack of bass on …And Justice For All renders it a bizarre combination of the lightweight and the heavy. And still no one knows exactly why it turned out that way. Was it a deliberate (and radical) artistic gesture? A catastrophic mistake born out of Ulrich and Hetfield arrogantly meddling with the mix? A self-defeating memorial to deceased bassist Cliff Burton? A monumentally horrible hazing of new bassist Jason Newstead?

Perhaps the poor reaction to St. Anger is, in part, a delayed revenge for …And Justice: ‘We gave you the benefit of the doubt once, but never again!’ Perhaps St. Anger would have had a better reaction if one could trust that everything on it – the drums in particular – were as they are because of a carefully thought-through decision. Perhaps St. Anger’s fate was settled when Some Kind Of Monster seemed to show that Metallica had little idea what they were doing (that certainly explains why those critics who defended the album when it came out in 2003, recanted or kept quite after the film came out in 2004). As if documentaries are transparent windows allowing us to view ‘what really happened’!

Should bands have to prove themselves trustworthy? That’s a bigger question, for another day, but it is hard to see 2008’s Death Magnetic as anything other than an attempt to do just that. For me, it is Metallica’s saddest album. There is nothing about it that is startling, frustrating, brilliant, terrible or memorable. It is serviceable, competent, and carefully-constructed. Fans and critics found it acceptable. I’ve listened to it twice. It’s fine. I have no motivation to listen to it dutifully or bravely. Give me St. Anger any day.

Still, I have to concede that Death Magnetic did allow the band to move on. In 2011 they collaborated with Lou Reed on the strange experiment of Lulu. By that stage Metallica had recovered enough trust for the album to be largely ignored rather than ridiculed. They would be allowed the occasional indulgence. On 2016’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct and this year’s 72 Seasons, the band started to sound spritely and energetic again. Live shows still sell out; bands and fans have, through silent negotiation, reached a compromise: You can have three or four songs from recent albums, but you must play ‘Creeping Death’ until you are cold and dead.

St. Anger doesn’t need to be forgiven. No one should seek penance for straining every sinew to be a better person and a better artist. No one should be rejected for pushing themselves to the limit to achieve something transcendent. Otherwise, what are we saying? Is ‘never try, never risk anything, never be sincere’ really the kind of message we want to send to artists, to ourselves, to anyone?

I’ll take the nervy anxiety of St. Anger-era Metallica over the smug complacency of the jaded rockist, standing and judging, arms-folded, at the back of the hall. I’ll take that every time. And so should you.

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