Thirty years ago this week, Metallica released their fifth studio album, the self-titled Metallica, commonly referred to as “the black album.” Like most of Metallica’s music, the black album is an encouragement to face hardship head-on. Metal’s appeal, at least to me, has always been how it channels anger–and especially male anger–toward a new understanding of our messed-up world and our own messed-up circumstances. Like wandering through a catacomb, metal helps sublimate the grotesque. But on the black album, Metallica decided for the first time to craft their songs in a more accessible form than in the past. The result was the greatest commercial success they would ever experience, to go along with their previous critical acclaim.
I was eleven years old when Metallica came out. I was obsessed with music, sneaking as much MTV as I could, and I was both enthralled with and terrified by Metallica. I was also a devoted evangelical Christian on the cusp of experiencing the breakdown of my family. As I headed into a decade of adolescent spiritual wandering, the black album quickly became a source of cathartic relief, and it remains so now. As a tribute, I offer a reflection on the album’s twelve tracks that made metal mainstream and still invite contemplation atypical of today’s popular music.
“Enter Sandman” has one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in rock history, and it is therefore one of the most famous opening tracks to any record ever produced. The song was a huge radio hit, and some fans considered it Metallica’s big sell-out moment. (I think that moment truly came a few years later, but then they returned to form.) The lyrics build on the band’s collective interest in the horror movie genre, musing on various nightmare scenarios against a spoken-word backdrop of a child praying, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep . . .” Life can be scary, and the unconscious state affects our waking reality in ways we cannot fully know; but fortunately, “exit light, enter night” is never the final word. Metallica reminds us here that it is probably much worse for our souls when we ignore the darkness rather than stand up to it.