Had the dudes in Metallica really wanted to go pop with their fifth LP, they certainly could have. Producer Bob Rock was ready with the echoey U2 guitar effects and corny Bon Jovi talkbox — both buried in the mix, as detailed in a 2001 Classic Albums episode — and there’s an “elevator version” of “Nothing Else Matters” with way more of composer Michael Kamen’s orchestrations.
But the hard-headed Cali thrash-metal pioneers were only willing to venture so far out of their comfort zone. As it turned out, they went just far enough.
Released 25 years ago tomorrow (Aug. 12, 1991) the self-titled set known as The Black Album shocked everyone by topping the Billboard 200 and producing three Top 40 singles, including the ineffable air-guitar anthem “Enter Sandman,” which raged all the way to No. 16. Perhaps because it wasn’t tied to some trend like grunge or teen pop, Black stayed in fashion throughout the ‘90s, and a quarter-century later, it stands as the top-selling album of the Nielsen SoundScan era, the period that began with the March 1991 launch of that company’s sales-tracking system.
For every 100 kids that got into Metallica because of The Black Album, a handful of early fans left the flock. The purists had legitimate gripes. Compared to the foursome’s previous efforts, the record was achingly slow and cloyingly melodic. The guitar solos have feeling, and the rhythm section grooves. Gone was the guileless berserker charge of 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, the precision riff warfare of Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, and the cornered-panther prog-thrash prowling of 1988’s …And Justice for All, the record that had brought Metallica to the brink of crossover success.
And yet it isn’t the sellout album some fans would have you believe. Much like Shania Twain’s 1997 blockbuster, Come On Over, which ranks No. 2 within the Nielsen SoundScan era, it’s an example of how to artfully make millions of mainstream listeners embrace a style of music they always thought they hated. Interestingly, both ‘Tallica and Shania made the masses come to them with the help of ‘80s hard rock super producers.
Twain worked with her then-husband, Robert “Mutt” Lange, the British-born recluse responsible for such mega-sellers as AC/DC’s Back In Black (a major touchstone for Metallica) and Def Leppard’s Pyromania and Hysteria. On those albums, every hummable lick and humongoid chorus is right where it belongs. Lange is a peerless pop craftsman, and with Come On Over, he and Twain left nothing to chance. They held on to some key country elements — the slight twang in Shania’s vocals, the flashes of fiddle, the spunky lipstick feminism of “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” the earnest devotion of “Still the One” — and snuck them into pop tunes VH1 would play alongside the Spice Girls and Alanis Morissette. (The non-single “Black Eyes, Blue Tears,” about leaving an abuser, even rumbles a bit little like “Sandman.”)
Metallica got to a similar place — primetime MTV — in a less calculating manner. Rock, whose credits included Bon Jovi and Motley Crue, tried and failed to shape the band’s arrangements; as he says in the Classic Albums episode, the best he could do was convince the guys to slow the tempos, make the bass audible, and include a few harmonies. The group made these concessions, and yet they didn’t sacrifice the attitudes essential to metal. The vaguely hawkish “Don’t Tread On Me” and Eastern-flavored drifter’s apologia “Wherever I May Roam” speak to the trust-no-one, screw-everyone individualism endemic to the genre. Frontman James Hetfield aims the huffy “Holier Than Thou” at people who think they’re better than him, tapping into the anti-elitist vibe that manifests itself more meaningfully whenever bands like Metallica sing about poor soldiers sent to war. “Through the Never” is about how existence is cruel riddle man will never solve.
Instead of slicing through you like bits of shrapnel, the album’s songs shake the ground out from under your feet. “Sad But True” is the best example — any faster and this one actually would’ve lost momentum. And then there’s the love ballad, “Nothing Else Matters,” which was destined to irk thrash-heads even without the strings. Sure, it’s weird to hear Hetfield croon instead of growl and bare his soul with lines like, “Never opened myself this way.” But it’s dark and vague enough to be about anything. Metallica had done pretty before — ”Fade to Black,” “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” even the 2:35 mark on the first album’s “Phantom Lord” — and here, they can’t help but stay a little ugly.
Today, the gambles Metallica and Shania took are emblematic of another time. Post-Twain mainstream country gobbles up pop sounds (rap verses, EDM drops, ‘80s butt-rock guitars) like items on a buffet. Crossovers are very much the norm. (One day, Shania and Kanye can argue about who actually made Taylor Swift famous.)
Fans of metal and country still debate about authenticity and selling out, but the stakes are lower. The next time Metallica pisses everyone off by going full-on orchestral, re-hiring Bob Rock for a snare-free musical therapy session, or making a highfalutin concept record based on 19th century German theater, fans won’t have to risk money on a CD or a download. If it sucks on first stream, just scroll down to Puppets for the billionth time. Or Metallica. Now that record rules.