in The People's Album

Since it’s March 31 and we still haven’t had a single post all month, here’s an obligatory People’s Album entry to keep this from being the first completely postless month. Though don’t worry, word on the street is that we’ll be a little more active on here in the month ahead.

Album: Metallica (The Black Album)
Artist: Metallica
Release Date: August 12, 1991
Copies Sold In U.S.: 16 million

Why Was This Popular?

Because Sometimes America Wants To Get Dark And Serious

I have to preface this by saying that I’ve really never cared much for metal. I know that’s such a typical music snob thing to say, but I have tried at various points in my life to get into some of the more revered metal albums (including ones by this entry’s artist). But other than Black Sabbath and a few hard rock bands that are debatably metal (Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses), there basically aren’t any metal bands that I would consider myself a “fan” of. Maybe this is because I have too much of a melody-based brain or maybe it’s because guitar-shredding rarely interests me, but I’ve just never been able to crack this genre that has some of the most passionate fans in all of music. This isn’t to say that I don’t respect metalheads’ enthusiasm for this music; I just know that I’ll never be one of them.

It’s almost indisputable that the 1980s were the height of metal fandom, though to me it seems that metal fandom was split into two distinct groups who adored two very different kinds of metal bands. The more commercial of these two factions was the hair metal bands (your Poisons, your Motley Crues, your GNR’s), who in addition to cultivating male fans that loved to party also were able to attract a decent amount of female fans. Presumably, this is because they looked more like women than your average rock bands and also were smart enough to throw a power ballad on one of their albums if they wanted a crossover hit. On the other end of the spectrum, there were the “serious” metal bands and their similarly “serious” fans (Iron Maiden, Slayer, Anthrax), which I would say is the category Metallica undeniably falls into. The fans in this camp seemed to be a lot more male and a lot more alienated, which made their appeal a little less broad, but alternately they were a much more devoted fanbase.

But what the hell do any of these bands do when the ‘90s arrive? Well, by early 1991, the signs of alt-rock’s imminent takeover were already there, as bands like Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains had already released albums on major labels. Though none of them had made nearly a big enough splash to get any metal bands scared that their days may be numbered. So what we get right before grunge’s explosion in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind is both the hair metal world and the serious metal world releasing these very monumental albums that weirdly end up being their deathknells. First, you have Metallica releasing their self-titled album (often referred to as The Black Album) in August 1991, while Guns N’ Roses release Lose Your Illusion I & II on September 17, only a week before Nevermind is quietly released, though it wouldn’t enter the Billboard Top 40 until November on its way to cultural dominance.

I can’t help but bring all this up because I have to question whether the rise of grunge hurt or helped Metallica’s sales. I’d like to think that it probably helped it just a little bit, but not by that wide of a margin. For one, Metallica had already been building their fanbase with a whole bunch of beloved albums over the course of the ‘80s, and Metallica was filled with a sound that was heavy enough that it didn’t alienate these fans, but also took enough big swings that it caught the ear of the mainstream. Also, while Metallica certainly was born of the metal-loving ‘80s, they really weren’t that far off from a grunge band.

After all, the Bay Area isn’t that far from the Pacific Northwest, while a lot of the grunge bands were more into metal than the more punk-sounding bands that made up rock’s underground at the time. Additionally, it must have helped that Metallica had slowed down the high-speed thrash of their early records into something a bit more sludgy combined with the kind of mopey lyrics that wouldn’t feel out of place on an Alice In Chains record. At the very least, it made Metallica a lot readier to brave grunge’s storm than Guns N’ Roses were when they released a double album that feels like the very definition of rock star excess.

As much as I can talk about fanbases and how much that propelled Metallica over the top once they were ready to hit the mainstream, you don’t make a mega-selling album without an iconic single, no matter how devoted your fans are. Of course, Metallica features one of only a handful of metal songs to crossover into the mainstream and that we will all probably be hearing until we die. “Enter Sandman” is a pretty silly song whose lyrics really aren’t that menacing, and yet it can easily get you pumped if you’re willing to give yourself over to it. It’s no wonder that it was the theme song to the greatest relief pitcher of all time, has been used to wake up NASA astronauts on the international space station, and was even used for interrogation purposes by the U.S. military in Iraq. For better or worse, it’s an inseparable part of American music with an instantly recognizable riff that makes impending doom sound like a hell of a time.

While “Enter Sandman” may be the song that pushed this album over the top into mainstream success when this band had never quite reached it, the album’s other single “Nothing Else Matters” also speaks to what has made this album so popular. It showed that the band could do more than heavy, as even the band’s other songs of that era that incorporate acoustic guitars or at the very least, undistorted electric guitars, would eventually get to “the heavy part” at some point. While “Nothing Else Matters” does have its own heavy guitar solo section, it is mostly content to be a soul-baring ballad. There isn’t really anything else on this album nearly as plaintive as this song (the closest is the Ennio Morricone-esque “The Unforgiven”), but the song still speaks to how much producer Bob Rock was able to open up Metallica’s sound. By all accounts, the band did not have an easy time working with him on The Black Album, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to deny that this album would have been as big of a hit without him.

Did It Deserve To Be Popular?

As I hinted at earlier, I’ve tried to listen to some of the earlier Metallica albums that music snobs and metalheads alike hail as “the good ones”, but they’ve never quite clicked with me. Maybe there’s something about music that’s that fast and that aggressive that just instantly wears me out. It’s kind of the same thing I have with hardcore punk, where I can listen to a song or two of it and get on its wavelength, but would never be able to get through a whole album without getting a headache or just bored. So this makes me feel completely devoid of any credibility when I say that I find this album to be far more appealing than any other Metallica I’ve listened to.

This isn’t to say that I love this album, since I think it’s just impossible for me to get over the fact that my brain isn’t really wired to enjoy metal. But I can at least listen to it in its entirety while having a decent time. The hulking riffs at the heart of songs like “Sad But True” or “The God That Failed” are bone-headed for sure, but they’re very easy to bang your head to without hurting yourself the way you would banging your head to a lot of other metal. Also, even though they’re surrounded by walls of overbearing guitars and the inelegant drumming of Lars Ulrich, there are actual melodies behind these songs that once again show a newfound maturity for this band. Really my only big complaint is that at a little over an hour, the album becomes a little monotonous after a while.  

Would I Spend Money On This?

Probably not?

This is a good album, and I can totally get why The Black Album basically made Metallica a stadium act for life. But at the end of the day, this kind of music just doesn’t speak to me. It certainly says something about how little curiosity I had for it considering it’s been showing up in “classic album” lists and retrospectives for as long as I can remember being a rock nerd, and yet I hadn’t listened to it until a month ago. While I think I did end up liking it a little better than I expected, it’s hard for me to imagine ever wanting to listen to it again after finishing this review.

Next Time on The People’s Albums: I’ve got more than a feeling that I’ll get some peace of mind talking about Boston’s debut album. Come on! It’s a smokin’ album by a rock n’ roll band.