What it lacks in memorable songs, it makes up for in its startlingly intimate lyrical content.
By the time they got around to recording St. Anger in 2003, the members of Metallica had been through some serious shit. In 2000, drummer Lars Ulrich caused a fair amount of controversy with his attack on nascent peer-to-peer music file sharing network Napster, charging the company with copyright infringement and racketeering after Ulrich and the band found the whole of their catalog freely available for download. Ulrich subsequently testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July of that year. Settled out of court, the case resulted in some 300,000 Napster users being banned from using the service. Seen as the big rock star attacking a bunch of poor college students for sharing music, the whole imbroglio ultimately reflected poorly on the band, Ulrich in particular.
Just months later, the group lost long-time bassist Jason Newsted due to what he described as, “private and personal reasons and the physical damage I have done to myself over the years while playing the music I love.” It would be several years before the band settled on a replacement in former Suicidal Tendencies bassist Robert Trujillo, and, even then, his addition came after the release of St. Anger. Producer Bob Rock would temporarily fill the band’s bass chair during recording, while Trujillo would tour behind the album.
Shortly after recording began in early 2001, James Hetfield entered rehab for “alcohol and other addictions.” Between rehab and time with his family to reassess his priorities, Hetfield would remain apart from the band for some 11 months. All of this was documented for posterity in the critically-acclaimed documentary, Some Kind of Monster, in which the band confronts itself and, through a “performance-enhancing coach” hired by the band’s management firm, works through its interpersonal difficulties.
The results are fascinatingly messy, the band (Ulrich in particular) often coming across as a bunch of petulant middle-aged man-children. It’s a fascinating look at a prominent rock act placed under an unflinching microscope as it slowly begins to come apart at the seams. For perhaps the first time, the curtain was pulled back, and the ugly underbelly of rock music and its interpersonal relationships was revealed in full. Essentially an uncomfortable group therapy session, Some Kind of Monster still makes for fascinating viewing.
Somehow Metallica managed to pull itself back together enough to complete the album, something also shown in the film. Its first release of the new century, St. Anger reflects a leaner, more aggressive version of the band. Gone are the frenetic guitar solos, in favor of structured unison lines and tighter songwriting from Hetfield and company. Driven by Ulrich’s brutally pummeling drums – his snare here is often particularly painful to listen to, slicing its way through the mix – the faster tempos and heavier guitars helped bring the band back into focus. It’s not necessarily the Metallica of old, but it’s also not whatever it had hoped to achieve in the post-grunge world of the mid- ‘90s. It’s a return to heavy speed, the basic tenant of the underground movement the group helped spawn.
Throughout the album, Hetfield’s anger and frustration at himself, his life and the band comes to the fore. “If I could have my wasted days back/ Would I use them to get back on track?” he barks on opener “Frantic.” First-person pronouns crop up in nearly every track, the focus having clearly shifted from the doom and gloom of traditional metal thematic material into the relatable, painful realm of introspection. “Am I who I think I am?” he asks himself as much as his bandmates and fan base. “I’m okay/ Just go away/ Into distance let me fade…I’m okay/ But please don’t stray too far,” the band sings on “Invisible Kid,” which, despite its livejournal-esque phrasing, succinctly brings together the inter- and intrapersonal turmoil experienced over the previous years.
In essence, St. Anger functions as the soundtrack to Some Kind of Monster and, more so than perhaps any of its previous albums, possesses a level of lyrical insight that places the focus on what Hetfield has to say rather than what he and fellow guitarist Kirk Hammett have to play. Stripped to its bare essence, the album is the band’s dashboard confessional; it needed to be committed to tape, released to the public and expelled from the band’s system for the group to leave behind the myriad distractions of the preceding years and focus on retaining its crown as the reigning kings of metal. St. Anger is the bridge between past and present, insanity and contentedness. What it lacks in memorable songs, it makes up for in its startlingly intimate lyrical content.