Metallica’s St. Anger rode a wave of dysfunction to the top of the charts
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In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Metallica’s St. Anger, which went to No. 1 on June 21, 2003, where it stayed for one week.
St. Anger is Metallica’s post-rehab, post-therapy, post-almost-breakup belch of spite and confusion. It sold well and received generally good reviews upon release in the summer of 2003, but it has been subsequently remembered as The Thing That Should Not Be in the band’s catalog (as opposed to “The Thing That Should Not Be”), an all-time low-point memorably described by Pitchfork’s Brent DiCrescenzo as “different, terrible noise.” That changed somewhat after Lou Reed emerged from dark, foreboding shadows to talk Metallica into making the ill-conceived double-album Lulu last year. But even if Lulu elevates it somewhat by comparison, St. Anger is still the album that gave the world “my lifestyle determines my death-style”—the “No wire hangers!” of 21st century rock lyrics. And that’s from the album’s best song.
On paper, St. Anger delivers precisely what many people say they want out of music. It is raw, direct, and true. The songs accurately reflect the band’s state of mind when they were written and recorded, and they are presented with practically no sweetening or fancy studio trickery. It is an unabashed “as is” album. Producer Bob Rock described the recording of St. Anger as “very guerilla-style,” and admitted that considerations that might normally take several hours or even days to figure out (like getting the right drum sound) were dispensed with in a matter of minutes. This Metallica record is totally in your face, man.
St. Anger successfully captures a singular mood—it exudes discomfort, alienation, and all-encompassing venom. It sounds ugly because it expresses the reality of ugly emotional terrain. One of the longest lasting and most commercially successful rock bands of the modern era ripped itself apart while making St. Anger, and radically remade its music, eschewing many of the elements (like guitar solos) that made it popular. Its members also learned to communicate better with each other with the assistance of a “personal enhancement coach” hired by Metallica’s management, and the band’s therapy sessions only enhanced the album’s emotional frankness. St. Anger is driven equally by creative restlessness and self-hatred, and you can hear plenty of both in the music. No matter what else you can say about St. Anger, it is unblinkingly honest and authentic. It comes from pain, and it dishes it out.
So, if all those things are true, why does St. Anger fail so resoundingly at being good music? (Or, in the parlance of St. Anger: Why didn’t the album’s gritty-style determine its awesome-style?) The most obvious culprits are the lack of sound songwriting (none of the tracks on St. Anger deserve a place on a Metallica mix-tape, or even several Metallica mix-tapes) and the incoherent production. (The drums sound like Sonny Corleone beating up his brother-in-law with a garbage can lid.) But the “honest” qualities of St. Anger, while providing a fascinating subtext, are also a hindrance. It is a cathartic album that’s never able to make its spent emotion artful. St. Anger can be likened to a bucket of vomit: It came out of a sick organism, it is composed of unsavory materials, and seemingly had to expunged for the good of the organism. (Metallica has carried on for nearly a decade, and counting, in St. Anger’s wake.) The end result is a necessary byproduct of a healthy process, but that doesn’t mean you want to be near it. After all, this is a bucket of vomit we’re talking about here.
The making of St. Anger is arguably better known than the album itself, thanks to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary Some Kind Of Monster, which manages to do what Metallica couldn’t and create something masterful out of this period of the band’s history. The strength of Some Kind Of Monster is that it’s able to do two things really well at the same time: 1) It depicts a veteran band learning how to grow up and come to grips with the consequences of living like rock stars for two decades; and 2) it shows how thoroughly the language of psychotherapy has infiltrated our daily lives. It is a personal story that manages to make a large statement about our culture. By contrast, St. Anger is thematically one-dimensional. It’s an angry record because it says so right in the title. (If Metallica had written “Fade To Black” at this time, it would’ve been called “A Song About Suicide That Starts Slow But Gets More Rocking By The End.”)
Chuck Klosterman, writing in The New York Times Magazine, summed up the dichotomy at the heart of Some Kind Of Monster thusly: “It’s the most in-depth, long-form psychological profile of any rock band that has ever existed. It’s also the closest anyone has ever come to making a real-life This Is Spinal Tap.” The Spinal Tap comparison isn’t entirely fair, unless you’re physically unable to watch millionaire metal gods talk about their feelings without laughing. (This is a common, and understandable, problem.) But I actually find it pretty easy to empathize with the members of Metallica while watching Monster. Their fame and wealth are impossible to wrap my head around—a famous scene shows Lars Ulrich making more than $13 million in one night from selling part of his extensive art collection—but their personal issues are not. They fear rejection from those they are closest to, and therefore are reluctant to make themselves emotionally vulnerable. They cling to the band because of deep-seated abandonment issues from childhood. They worry about failure and doubt whether they still have it in them to succeed. I’ve never released a diamond-selling album, but on some level I can relate to all of that, and (unless you’re uncommonly well-adjusted or sociopathic) you probably can, too.
The difference between Spinal Tap and Metallica is self-awareness. Spinal Tap carries on because the guys in the band still believe they are a part of something great. Monster never suggests that the members of Metallica believe this; if anything, the band seems suddenly unsure of how to properly make music together.
Metallica consciously approached the making of St. Anger much differently than its other records. For the first 20 years of its existence, the two-headed monster of Ulrich and singer-guitarist James Hetfield wrote the songs and told the other members what to play. But St. Anger was made as a true collaboration, with all band members contributing musically and lyrically to the songwriting process for the first time. As the first Metallica album in several years, and the follow-up to the slickest and most commercial records of the band’s career—1996’s Load and 1997’s ReLoad—St. Anger also set out to re-establish Metallica’s “aggressive” credentials amid a new generation of nü-metal groups.
One of my favorite scenes in Some Kind Of Monster involves a band argument about whether St. Anger should include guitar solos. The issue boils down to the pros and cons of Metallica “updating” its sound for a new era. Ulrich argues against solos, because he thinks they tie Metallica to the past, and this album is about moving the band forward. Guitarist Kirk Hammett counters (correctly, in my view) by pointing out that whether the album includes solos is irrelevant; what Metallica should be avoiding is following trends that will date the album to the time it was made.
This is exactly the sort of discussion that gives credence to those inclined to laugh at Metallica as real life Nigel Tufnels and David St. Hubbinses. Only an overly serious superstar metal band could argue about the sanctity of guitar solos with a straight face. But Metallica is an overly serious superstar metal band, and in this context the argument sort of means everything.
This scene cuts to the heart of what’s wrong with St. Anger, and what I find most troubling about what Some Kind Of Monster says about rock music and why bands decide to stay together. Metallica ultimately opted not to have guitar solos on St. Anger, and the album is clearly an attempt to sound “current” as it was defined in the early ’00s. And this achieved exactly what Hammett warned about: St. Anger sounds inextricably tied to a terrible period in mainstream rock music. (Side note: When Metallica played the St. Anger cut “Dirty Windows” in concert—one of the only songs from the album to make the set list—Hammett added a guitar solo.)
Some Kind Of Monster is about an exhausted, legendary band trying to find a way to be relevant—first to itself, and then, hopefully, to the rest of the world. The film performs some tricky jujitsu at the end to make it seem like St. Anger signaled the band’s triumph over adversity, but this relevancy question is never really resolved. Just because Metallica stays together doesn’t mean that it should stay together. It was able to pull together and finish St. Anger, but Metallica’s creative compass was broken. The band no longer seemed to know what people wanted from it, what its strengths were, or (most importantly) what it wasn’t capable of. The fact that St. Anger went to No. 1 in the U.S., among many other countries, is presented at the end of Some Kind Of Monster as validation for all the hardships the band went through while making it. But that’s like arguing to keep a marriage together for the sake of the kids.
Setting aside the millions of dollars at stake, the (perhaps unintentional) impression given by Some Kind Of Monster is that ending Metallica might’ve been the best idea for all involved. As a counter-argument to that, St. Anger is hardly convincing.
Coming up: Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill