Photo by Tim Saccenti
“Throughout childhood we are taught all these ways to be and yet we are rarely told anything about our true self,” Roger Hodgson of Supertramp told songfacts.com in 2012, in reference to the thought process that birthed ‘The Logical Song.’
“We are taught how to function outwardly, but not guided to who we are inwardly. We go from the innocence and wonder of childhood to the confusion of adolescence, that often ends in the cynicism and disillusionment of adulthood.”
Referencing a British art-rock masterpiece to kick off a Metallica review might seem like a bit of a non-sequitur – or at least, it would’ve, back when the thrash progenitors were doing their best to keep the Absolut Vodka company in business and releasing grim epics detailing the existential angst born of confronting the apocalypse on a daily basis. But with the release of “72 Seasons,” the band’s 11th studio album, it becomes apparent that even the mighty Metallica has had to face the morning after, when the booze is all gone, the overflowing ashtrays are aggressively stinking up the place, and the sun is shining through the half-drawn blinds like an angry and decidedly judgmental deity.
For singer, guitarist and principal lyricist James Hetfield, the path from childhood innocence to adult despair and disillusionment coincided with Metallica’s rise from the grubby metal underground to the heights of stadium mega-stardom, a roller-coaster ride that afforded him little time to grow up and plenty of time to drink away any nagging doubts about mental stability and emotional health. Now on the cusp of his 60s, Hetfield finds himself, in Metallica parlance, a broken, beat and scarred man who is losing the stamina he’s long relied on to outrun his demons.
And so, “72 Seasons” – its title a reference to the first 18 years of a human life, and a nod, it seems, to a simultaneous explosion of talent and possibility and an attendant inability to process problems that linger just below the surface – is a bit of a concept album.
On the surface, the thematic glue that holds the album together is the sticky topic of Hetfield’s struggle with recovery and his ongoing battles with alcoholism. But “72 Seasons,” though relentlessly strident and far from timid, is a richly layered offering, and digging through those layers reveals a deeper central theme – that, try as we might, we can never outrun our shadows, and attempting to do so is a fool’s errand. (Hetfield isn’t exactly Carl Jung, it’s true, but he’s standing firm and engaging with his inconveniently ever-present shadow self here, which would’ve made him a fascinating case-study for the renowned father of analytical psychology.)
From the album’s striking cover art – depicting a blackened, charred children’s crib, from which, we infer, a deeply troubled child has escaped into the broader world – to the plentiful lyrical references invoking “deep withdrawals,” ever-present temptation, and an over-arching cloud of despair that seems to follow the narrator wherever he might roam, “72 Seasons” drags the listener along on a descent into the maelstrom of Hetfield’s subconscious. Mega-success in the musical world aside, Hetfield hasn’t been granted too many breaks, and he seems loathe to give himself any here. He sounds positively furious from start to finish. But whereas throughout much of the band’s career, Hetfield simply sounded pissed off at the whole world, this time around, he’s directing all his rage and angst directly at the mirror.
This could be overbearing stuff in the hands of lesser metallic mortals, but Hetfield’s brutal honesty is his best friend as a writer. His other best friends are bandmates Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo, who lend the lightning and summon the thunder to Hetfield’s storm-of-self. The band sounds as mighty, meaty and massive as it did during its first (and in some ways, still its highest) peak, circa the release of the Cliff Burton-era masterwork “Master of Puppets.” If Hetfield is struggling with himself and acknowledging his age, Metallica the band is doing no such thing – these guys are positively on fire, decisive, on-point, and raging past the graveyard with all 8 middle fingers held aloft.
Even when the tempos were hyper-brisk, the most incisive Metallica music has always ably blended deliciously sleazy riffs with the band’s particular sense of groove – an idiosyncratic one, to be sure, but highly effective in its marriage of half-time strut and double-time gallop. “72 Seasons” is stuffed to the brim with these trademarks, and they elevate epics like “Sleepwalk My Life Away,” “You Must Burn!” And “Lux Aeterna” toward the heavy high ground of past glories like “Sad But True,” “Damage, Inc” and, yes, “Broken Beat & Scarred,” too.
“72 Seasons” doesn’t always look back in anger, however – there’s a well-earned nostalgia that runs as an undercurrent throughout the album, with lyrics that recall the band’s earliest days with fondness and gratitude, and musical motifs that celebrate early influences. Prominent among the latter are tips of the cap to both Motorhead (the bone-rattling 16th note chug at the heart of the title tune offers a posthumous bear hug to Lemmy) and “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” progenitors Diamond Head (the harmony guitar sections and twisted psychedelic blues riffs that pepper nearly every song on the album). Diehards will hear this as a celebration of the Metallica that made the “Garage Days” (1987) and “Garage Inc.” (1998) cover collections, and well they should, but the band manages to drag these influences kicking and screaming into the tense present.
Unsurprisingly, guitarist Hammett’s contributions are fiery, fluid and passionate, emerging from the mix to pummel the listener into submission, but retaining a dramatic arc and a deep musicality. And bassist Trujillo takes advantage of the most well-rounded, visceral low-end presence heard on any Metallica album that doesn’t list Cliff Burton amongst its credits. It all adds up to a glorious sturm und drang that, coupled with Hetfield’s muscular-but-introspective lyrics, emerges as the finest Metallica album of the 21st century.
A preponderance of initial reviews upon the album’s release nursed an identical achilles heel – a rather inexplicable complaint about song and album length. Perhaps these critics were in a hurry, or had somewhere pressing they needed to be, but “‘Wow, this is a killer new Metallica album, I just wish it wasn’t so long,’ said no Metallica fan, ever” is an absolute truism.
This is not pop music. It’s heavy metal. And the well-crafted excessiveness is the point. When Metallica is firing on all cylinders, as it indisputably is here, more is always more.