Lessons learned from St Anger
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
Musicians tend to think of influences as a list of favourites, but we hardly ever acknowledge that the music we block our ears and run a mile from shapes us just as much. So much of what influences our artistic development is the stuff we hear and think “I’d never do it that way”. Metallica’s St Anger, to me, is the greatest example of how far even a great artist can fall when they aren’t careful to get it right.
When my teenage metal band went into our school’s media room to make a recording, we had the recently-released St Anger perched atop the speakers with a note saying, “As long as it sounds better than (arrow pointing at CD), we’re doing okay.” We were only half joking, and we may even have partially succeeded, if only in the snare drum department.
It took about 4 sittings, but the other day I finished watching the documentary, Some Kind of Monster, in which a highly washed-up Metallica attempted to make an album while screaming “fuck” at one another, slamming doors, and talking about their feelings with a therapist. I had seen it before; as idiotically loyal teenage fans, my friends and I were the “queue up at HMV at midnight and pay $39.99 for the new Metallica in therapy DVD” types, despite our metal heroes being so past it, and our pocket money being so scarce.
Some Kind Of Monster was an eye-opener. Some said it was a cred-killer for Metallica, but I actually think it was the album that this uninspired period spawned, St Anger, that wrote them off as has-beens - the artists who made such masterpieces as Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets. It is downright astounding to think that the same people would make St Anger not two decades later. The album should have been called How The Mighty Have Fallen. It’s just that bad. Some Kind Of Monster showed the band working through their interpersonal problems, and the band now credit themselves with curing the metal world of toxic masculinity, but it was truly good for them to undergo this therapy. They come out the other side of those excruciating two hours as more together, more adult, less egotistical, less negative. So that’s good. And in a way, Some Kind Of Monster was ahead of its time, in that it paraded their innermost insecurities before the eyes of millions while expecting a medal for it, several years before social media had caught on in a big way.
For me, the most painful moments in this documentary aren’t the personal problems so much as the artistic ones. The documentary’s whole arc relies on the conclusion that the band fixed their differences, and that this caused them to make an awesome album. This narrative is flawed: the album sucks. Much of the film shows the band boredly jamming on generically dull heavy riffs, seemingly at a loss for anything better to do. It never seems like anyone is EVER stoked about the music - at the best of times, they seem more like “Oh, yeah, that’s nice, that’ll do”. You know what they say about ‘good’ being the enemy of ‘great’. St Anger couldn’t have contained one second of music unless the band had demanded nothing short of great material. It is the sound of settling for less.
Singer/guitarist James Hetfield (who never really gets credit for basically being EVERYTHING that makes Metallica who they are), was in the worst headspace for creating anything. You see him picking up a microphone and aimlessly improvising vocal lines over the painfully dull riffage (that they’ve sadly deemed worthy of inclusion on the album), reading lyrics off notepads and throwing in some self-parodical “Yayahs” for good measure (meaning bad measure). These lyrics, unlike in the past, weren’t written only by him: they were written together with the other two (non-lyricist) band members, their (non-lyricist) producer Bob Rock, and their (obviously non-lyricist) therapist. James Hetfield had essentially thrown his hands up and resigned as leader, leaving a vacuum to be filled with half-hearted committee decisions. It would have been an opportune time for their longtime producer to have taken the reigns and delegated, but apparently he had grown complacent in his role as de facto bass player, and the resulting album sounds less like a successful, titan metal band produced by a veteran producer, and more like a self-produced band who simply can’t.
I found it sad because I was just staring at the screen thinking, “Give up, guys! It’s not working. James, go read a sci fi book, watch a classic movie - whatever used to get you in the right headspace…” I feel like Bob Rock should have sat down with James early on, when it became obvious that he had no ideas, and brainstormed a bunch of ways that he could get excited to write again. Just that one meeting could have been sufficient to save the album. James was suffering - in and out of rehab and the studio, he just plain couldn’t muster a shit to give, and yet was still trying to create an album: the proverbial squeezing-blood-from-a-stone situation. He just didn’t have it in him. At their 80s peak, he was writing songs based on classic books, films and mythology, and asking the kind of very metal, philosophical “woah dude” questions that Geezer Butler did in Black Sabbath’s most cosmic and far-out songs. Even throughout their contentious alt-rock 90s period, among the songs about the boogeyman and cool cars, there were songs of substance like “The Memory Remains”. St Anger has no redeeming features. There is no one song that saves the album from failure like, say, “Achilles’ Last Stand” on Led Zeppelin’s Presence album.
Above: James Hetfield used to find cool sources of inspiration, and not coincidentally, wrote cool music.
I know it’s a music-journalistic cheap shot, but let’s take the following lyrics out of context and point out their stupidity…
“I’m madly in anger with you” - from “St Anger”. “In anger” instead of “in love”? Okay. Still, “in hate” would have made more sense. He could have just said something about being really angry at someone, but instead makes it this ‘clever’ switcharoo of “madly in love” which comes off as really, really stupid. Of course, singing a stupid line angrily makes it even stupider. Another thing St Anger can teach us. I get that this line probably came out of therapy and was to do with the bandmates loving each other despite being angry at each other, but just because it's true doesn't mean it's good.
“My lifestyle determines my deathstyle” - from “Frantic”. It’s so strange that this line was met with anything other than “Well duh/obviously/yes, you are what you eat, that’s correct”. Instead, it became one of the most spot-lit lyrics on the entire album. A good rule of thumb for lyrics is that if a line makes you shrug and say “So?” then it’s not worth using - at least not more than once!
“Frantic” also makes repetitive use of these lines: “Could I have my wasted days back? But I used them to get back on track”. Taken straight from the communal legal pad wankings of the Group Therapy Lyric Committee, he first asks for his wasted days back. Then, he immediately counters (either to himself, or to whoever ‘has’ his wasted days) that he used them to get back on track, which would imply that the days weren’t wasted. What the hell, Jaymz? The lyrics are so half-arsed that they double back on themselves and don’t commit to any particular perspective. Another lesson from St Anger: if you don’t mean it, don’t sing it.
The documentary portrayed the completion and release of St Anger as a triumph for the band, who had hit rock bottom but came out on top. Well, I witnessed first-hand that they were in anything but top form at that time. My friends and I saw them on the St Anger tour. They opened with “Frantic” and, straight from the rapid-fire intro, Lars went completely out of time. Me and some friends performed New Year’s Eve 2016 at the Old Bar as a hastily-formed, under-rehearsed tribute band called Craptallica; even we could have pulled off that intro. Later in this first song, Kirk Hammett, god bless him, got on the mic. Full points for trying something new, but there’s a reason he’s not the singer. He tried a ferocious “YOU LIVE IT OR LIE IT! YOU LIVE IT OR LIE IT!” and sounded like a child’s “RAWR!” impression of a dinosaur. There was almost like a Mexican wave of canned laughter-sounding laughter rippling up through the Myer Music Bowl that warm summers eve. It was hilarious, but I felt bad for him.
Re-watching Some Kind Of Monster just made me realise that you can’t kid yourself. If you don’t have an idea, don’t write a song. If you do, be prepared for it to suck. If it does, be prepared to ditch it despite your efforts. But St Anger was so lethargically, teeth-pullingly piecemeal that “Hooray for the sunk costs fallacy” could have been their band motto: “After months of artistic constipation straining on the toilet of inspiration, we finally managed to shift the tiniest, rock-hard stool, and we’ll be DAMNED if we’re not using it as the centrepiece of our shit sculpture.”
St Anger demonstrates that you can’t rest on your laurels. Just because half the world thinks you’re a genius doesn’t mean any brain fart you have is worthy of attention. It also demonstrates that you can’t create your best work if you’re too distracted by other things. The presence of bandmates with whom you can no longer communicate, as well as a film crew, a therapist and various other third parties coming in and out (the meeting scene, where the entire management team helps decide the album’s title, springs to mind: why the hell do they have any say? You’re METALLICA! Tell them to fuck off!), completely ruins any chance of Hetfield and Co being able to really submerge themselves in a truthful, receptive, artistic state within their album and see it for what it really is. The band simply spend so little time one-on-one with the music. I know documentaries can omit certain private moments, but I think I can hear this in the resulting music - I mean, if you were really paying attention, and you had successfully created Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets, then you just wouldn’t release this stuff. Would you?
St Anger showed that you shouldn’t write material that you’re not actually capable of performing, be it Lars’s struggles with the drums or Kirk’s with the vocals. It also showed that, although your immediate surroundings can be great source material, without an interesting artistic angle, you’re essentially just setting a therapy diary to music, with crap lines like “cleaning my dirty window” (from “Dirty Window”) about therapy improving their perspective. I mean, a metaphor in a metal song should be an engaging vehicle to ride through the forest of riffage. But this metaphor just had me imagining James Hetfield in rubber gloves washing the damn windows. There is so much wasted material from their therapy sessions. James’ and Lars’ bad blood could have inspired some diatribes of ultra-cathartic metal lyrics. Politeness prevailed, maybe? James would have sounded great roaring about Lars’ controlling pipsqueak ways - and he would have meant them, too!
The biggest lesson of all from St Anger is this: you’re only as good as your songs. End of story. What I heard on that CD and what I saw in that documentary is anything but a good band - no matter how great they had been once before. The present is the only time. They sucked because their material sucked.
The most disappointing art isn’t just bad, it’s by artists capable of better. From St Anger to those latter-day albums by such personal heroes of mine as Paul McCartney and Neil Young, there’s just no excuse to get old and give up - unless you’re prepared to hit the “stop” button on the recording device. Radiohead, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails and countless others release some of their best music decades into their careers, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t apply to every long-term artist. At 36 I like to think my stuff keeps getting better, and it's possible I’ve already created over 50% of everything I ever will. Perhaps it’s because there’s no audience to fan my ego, i.e. no laurels to rest on, which might allow me to be a harsh enough self-critic to not release the shittier songs I write (and believe me, I write them).
Above: late period albums by long-careered artists can either be good (L) or bad (R) - it's up to the artist.
An artist is only as good as their latest work, and anybody who releases music must not let themselves down. Release unpalatable music? Sure! Alienate your entire fanbase? Fantastic! But never, ever phone it in. St Anger is probably the most phoned-in album I have ever heard, and I think that’s why it stays with me. You could even say it inspires me!