Even though I couldn’t find lyrics credits for these two albums, James Hetfield reportedly was the only author of Metallica’s lyrics up to the St. Anger era, so this short essay is going to be about Hetfield as a songwriter during the controversial era of Load.
His lyrics up to this point are quite juvenile: inspired in movies he liked, sleazy beating songs, political rants. In …and justice for all and their self-titled the lyrics are somewhat more mature but they still don’t reach the plateau that is the Load era.
The nineties are strolling by and after two years of an endless and insanely successful tour, Metallica is back home. After five years from the release of the Black Album, Load sees the light, when Hetfield is in his early thirties.
Until it sleeps is the first song where parenthood themes are actually heavy, being a song about his mother. Hetfield’s mother was a member of Christian Science and died of cancer when Hetfield was still young, after refusing treatment because it went against her faith. I’m not sure if Hetfield is a Christian or not, but he already criticised religion both in Leper messiah and The God that failed; nonetheless, this is the first time he addresses his mother’s illness and death. In the song it speaks directly to cancer as if it is a person, also addresses the pain of loss and conveys a desire of cleanliness as health. It can also be interpreted as a song about anger issues, which Hetfield suffered from, and the desire for cleanliness is a desire for peace of mind, whereas anger is perceived as illness or impurity. So three major themes are present in this cut: parenthood, anger as impurity, and peace of mind as cleanliness and maturity.
The video clip is quite in the same line: it’s got some very obvious religious imaging (Adam, Eve and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, crucifixion and a Boschian scene) and features the band members grimacing and squirming. The religious symbols tie in with the cause of Hetfield’s mother’s death, whereas the squirming may symbolize pain and illness, but in general it looks closer to a fight against one’s own anger. Literal dirt is also featured as a symbol for illness or impurity and I don’t really know why Ulrich went with such heavy makeup and a feather boa but it’s there for posterity.
King Nothing strays from the themes I want to to examine but it still speaks as someone suffering from juvenile arrogance and hubris, and who may be discovering that people are getting tired of dancing to his tune, and also that he might not really know what’s best for him (“careful what you wish, you may regret it, careful what you wish, you just might get it”). So we might dump it into a minor theme of teenage whimsiness, which is still fresh air, compared to earlier lyrics.
Now that we got to Hero of the day, let me plead Death of the Author just for once. Apparently Word of God is that it’s about soldiers suffering from PTSD (it’s hard to know because source interviews that would confirm it are not on the internet), but until I read that I just racked my brains trying to figure out what it meant and decided it was about parent-child relationship during teenage years, and I think I can justify my point. Let’s go over it.
“The window burns to light the way back home / A light that warms no matter where they’ve gone.” The parent is waiting at home at night for the child to come back from a party, or classes, and so you can see the lit up window from outside. This light warms the child wherever they’ve gone, because the parent’s protection is always with them. “They’re off to find the hero of the day / But what if they should fall by someone’s wicked way?” Teenagers are building their personality, so they will look up to different people than their parents, who used to be their only heroes. The parent just wishes that person is not an evil person that will take them along the wrong path. “Still the window burns / Time so slowly turns / And someone there is sighing.” The parent is still waiting for the child to come back. It could also be a metaphorical waiting, like they’re waiting to have a close relationship when their rebel years have gone by. “Keepers of the flames / Do ya feel your name? / Can’t you hear your babies crying?” Parents are the keepers of the children’s flame, their desire to go outside and take on the world. But also they’re scared that the children will be hurt in their journey, and they’re worried they won’t hear them cry out for help.
“Mama they try and break me / Still they try and break me” Bullies, adults, my boss, peer pressure, society, who knows? The teenager reaches out to their mother for comfort and healing. “’Scuze me while I tend to how I feel / These things return to me that still seem real” Teenagers hide a lot their feelings, mostly because they don’t understand what’s happening to them and their lives. The things that return are the element that fits the least in my reading and points the most to the PTSD but it can be interpreted as nightmares, or insecurities. “Now deservingly this easy chair / But the rocking stopped by wheels of despair” again the parent sits in and waits for the child to come back, but can’t sit still as they’re much too anxious about whether the child needs their help. “Don’t want your aid / But the fist I’ve made / For years can’t hold or feel / No, I’m not all me / So please excuse me / While I tend to how I feel” here the teenager expresses their refusal of help, as they want to become adults in their own terms, but at the cost of feeling sorrow and impotence. The idea of hiding one’s feelings is reinforced.
“But now the dreams and waking screams / That never last the night / So build a wall, behind it crawl / And hide until it’s light / So can you hear your babies crying now?” Again anxiety is expressed and also the desire to hide, for shelter, until the situation is better. Calling the parent more for healing and reassurance than for actual help, and the last repetitions while the song reaches the crescendo and cadence underline the main ideas. Read this way, the song alternates between the parent and the child’s point of view and emphasizes the conflict and dialectics between both. This is probably probably my all-time favourite Metallica song and part of it is how I relate to (my interpretation of) the lyrics. Besides, James is near his all-time best moment as a vocalist (his best moment is, ironically, during Garage, inc.) and his rendition of the song is absolutely moving and passionate.
The video clip shows a young man in a quite messy little home who wakes up when it looks like it’s clearly the middle of the day. He watches TV, has some toast for breakfast and a girl comes over and they have sex. For a while I thought she was a prostitute, it would make sense given that he’s going to attempt suicide later and maybe he wanted to have sex for the last time, but it’s also true that people with partners also commit suicide, so she might be his girlfriend or a fuckmate, and that would make even more sense since she’s the one who calls him and then comes over. When she leaves, he swallows a handful of pills and lies down in pain. While he’s lying on the floor, some little monsters, reminiscent of dinosaurs, crawl out of his ears, walk across his face and disappear. The man then wakes up and throws up the pills he’s swallowed. He could be a soldier suffering for PTSD and unable to adjust to civil life, or he could be a young drug addict. He’s clearly not a teenager anymore but the theme of cleansing is present again both in the form of the monsters that come out of his ears and the vomiting of the drugs. This video clip is much more optimistic when dealing with dark themes than the previous one (think of One, which features cuts from no less than Johnny got his gun): the protagonist actually did some purging and is alive at the end of the video. Not only purification is desirable but it’s also possible. In the other hand, I don’t think the fact that the band members appear in the video has any special meaning, it’s just that they’re the kind of artists that can’t stand to not appear in their videos, even in artsy ones like this one.
Bleeding me continues with the purification theme, this time drawing a parallelism with being bled with a leech. Also maturity is present as a theme as the poetic speaker realises that what is happening to them, and the reason they need to be purified, is their own actions and choices: “I’m sowing the seeds / I’m sowing the seeds I’ve taken / I’m sowing the seeds I take for granted. / This thorn in my side / This thorn in my side is from the tree / This thorn in my side is from the tree I’ve planted.”
Despite its title, I think Cure is about religion and not directly related to the subject so I’m not going to comment on it, while Poor twisted me is at least tangentially related. Poor twisted me features a more adult and mature poetic speaker that makes fun of their younger self who indulged in self-pity and was convinced it always rained on them. Being capable of self-criticism of this sort is clearly a sign of maturity and having left arrogance left.
Wasting my hate is reportedly about one time when Hetfield thought he saw an acquaintance in a restaurant who didn’t say hello to him and that made him really cross, until a while later he realised he didn’t actually know that person and had been wasting his hate on him. The song is about the futility of wrath, how it consumes us but also how ironically addictive it is: “Ain’t gonna waste my hate / But I’m so greedy when they say / (It’s) better to give than to receive.” And I can tell you it’s true, having suffered from much less serious anger issues than him.
Mama said, another bright star of the parenthood arc, deals again with parent-child relationships and how teenage boys and girls need to stray away from their parents to find their own ways, which is painful for the parents. At the same time, when children become adults they may feel regret for having become too distant and having lost some precious time. In this song, the narrator leaves his mother to find his own way, and it is implied that the relationship felt suffocating for the son (“Apron strings around my neck / The mark that still remains”) When he comes back to her because he’s been missing her and realises he has taken her advice as granted, he finds that it’s too late and she’s dead. Having lost his mother as a teenager, this must be exactly how Hetfield felt, and it was unfair because every kid has their rebellious phase and that’s completely natural, but she was taken away before he could come around naturally and now he won’t be able to come back to her ever. In the song, at the same time, it’s heavily emphasised, even after revealing that the mother is dead, that the poetic speaker keeps asking her to let his heart go, and reproaches her for never having done so. There is a sense of incompleteness and melancholy, since this conflict will remain forever unsolved because of the definitiveness of death.
Thorn within throws in some new elements, different from what we’ve discussed so far, but is strongly related. Mothers have already been mentioned several times, but this is the first time fathers are called, even if it refers to a metaphorical father such as a priest: “Forgive me, father / For I have sinned / Find me guilty of the life I feel within / And when I’m branded / This mark of shame / Should I look down disgraced / Or straight ahead / And know that you must blame?” It can be taken at face value: a woman has become pregnant out of wedlock, or accidentally, and has to deal with guilt, shame and loss of innocence. She has to confess and be embarrassed in front of her family and society, maybe due to rape, an accident or her own choice. Taken metaphorically, it illustrates yet a new relationship we may have with our parents: not being what they want us to be. Having let them down and failed at what we wanted, or being exactly who we want to be, and having to accept they will always scorn us for being what we are. “So point your fingers / Point right at me / For I am shadows and will follow you / One and the same are we”: the relationship is bidirectional. The same way we can’t choose our parents, parents can’t choose their children, and so a shameful child will always follow them as a shadow. Given that there can’t be acceptance, the poetic speaker becomes spiteful and reminds the father that no matter what happens, they will always be his child.
While I really like Load, there are only very few songs from ReLoad that I like, but since they were all written around the same time I consider the two albums a whole and I just feel that the song selection was a bit unbalanced. The lyrics for ReLoad are more mature than early-era Metallica but they don’t tend to deal with the mentioned themes, and some of them are downright nonsensical (I’m looking at you,Unforgiven II). In fact a lot of them sound like Hetfield is tired of being vulnerable and melancholic about his feelings and he wants to sound more mature but at the same time cynical and smug. In fact Carpe Diem Baby inverts the theme of cleanliness and invites the poetic listener to wash their face with dirt.
But there is this one exquisite song that I love that deals with the very rare theme of masculinity and fatherhood, and that song is Prince Charming. The poetic speaker is stripped of all innocence now, and defines himself as black clouds, poison ivy, a needle in your child. It’s very interesting that the things the speaker is compared to are very adult fears, some of them related to children and parenthood (needle in your child, the one that doesn’t look quite right when children play). Also things that are shameful for parents in their children are mentioned, such as being a whore, or a drunk, or homeless. The chorus goes: “Yeah, look, it’s me / The one who can’t be free / Much too young to focus / But too old to see”: this person is a young adult who is supposed to be autonomous and have agency but is still not treated as an adult by society, and is found playing a role that hates, with everyone projecting on them clichés and prejudices that don’t allow them to grow up.
“Hey, look, it’s me / What no one wants to see / See what you brought this world? / Just what you want you want to see / Hey ma, hey ma, look, it’s me.” Like in Thorn within, the poetic speaker is addressing a mother who was let down by what her child has become, and the son is screaming right back at her that this is what he is, this is what she made of him. “Yeah, he wants to become father now / Me again, me (…) I’m the one who doesn’t look quite right / As children play” So this is what it’s all about! This man who has let everyone down and is not allowed into adult world has the aspiration to become a father. Someone who other parents keep their children away from. When he says this phrase I always get goosebumps. And he’s afraid he might be awful at it, since everyone scorns him.
“Look up to me, / What to be and what to fear / Look up to me / Look it’s me, at what you hear / See right through me / See the one who can’t be free / See right through me / Look it’s me what no one wants to see.” No matter what, he’s going to be a father and his child is going to look up to him. Everyone is going to see how he can be an adult and fulfill the role he wants to fulfill, that of a father. The overall feel of the albums make you think he’s terrified of being a parent and an adult, but that’s what he wants and he’s going to get it. For that reason purification is such an important theme as well. In order to be an adult and become a parent, you have to let go of your teenage rage, accept that your parents might never agree with what you do, and become autonomous. In fact, that brings us to the title as closure: Load. Being an adult is a load. Alternatively, to become an adult you have to get rid of your loads, prominently of those bestowed upon you by your parents, who may or may not be right, may or may not love you, but in the end are only your parents.
I also mentioned that I think there is a theme of masculinity in this song. Around here people might be surprised because some keep forgetting that feminism also deals with masculinity and acknowledges that men also have doubts and conflicts about their gender identity and what constitutes masculinity. I think this song is a very honest reflection on the topic. Along the examining of what it takes to be a father, it is also wondered what it means to be a man, since only a man can be a father and there are very stiff social roles attached to both. All the images matched to the speaker can be seen as ways to try to grasp masculinity, such as the black cloud, the poison ivy, the bully boy, the gun, the one who plants the bomb and strolls away, the cuts on an arm. All of those are seen as negative by the mother, but he underlines that he is all these things, and he is trying to construct his identity from all these bad things he is, and with that he might find the good things that he is as well. Moreover, look at the title: he knows he’s not even close to a role model, so it’s used as mockery.
As always, thank you for reading and my ask is open for any discussions.