Through A Note Darkly: Pearl, Sea Change, Metallica (The Black Album)

Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Vill ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.

3. Metallica: Metallica

Personal Favorite: "The Unforgiven

Summarizing Lyric: "Never opened myself this way" off of "Nothing Else Matters"

I don’t like to admit it, but if I was fourteen in 1991 I probably would’ve screeched “Sellouts!” after hearing “Nothing Else Matters,” stormed out of my poster-covered room with tears of rage, crying to mommy, “they’re not talking about puppets anymore.” Why? Because Metallica was so good at being a thrash band. I like the hits on the album, but none ever reached the level of greatness I placed their faster, older stuff, none except for “The Unforgiven” (The hope in the character that ends the first verse, “never from this day his will they'll take away,” being beaten to death by his attempt to please the world, “A tired man they see no longer cares,” gets me every time). Hearing the hits in the context of an album didn’t really change my mind about them, but the sequencing did change my mind about the songs that didn’t get airplay, the songs that come after “Nothing Else Matters.” I never liked “Nothing Else Matters.” It feels too on the nose as a “we’re mature now” song, it feels wrong as track two on side two, and after hearing “Of Wolf and Man” (Hetfield’s defense of tradition that demonstrates a struggle with Metallica’s decision to diverge from a tradition of metal they helped pave), “The God That Failed” (Hetfield expressing a dark frustration with his mother who believed her cancer would be healed with prayer, a belief that left him without a mother) and “My Friend of Misery” (Hetfield screaming at himself to stop insisting the weight of the world be on his shoulder) more closely, I don’t see why Metallica felt the need to do “Nothing Else Matters.” I’m not against band’s evolving, but I do believe some bands try to grow up too fast. To me, “Nothing Else Matters” was Metallica growing up too fast. The Black Album might not have been thrown down in disgust by so many hardcore fans if it had stuck to proving one thing, that Metallica could move from thrash to heavy metal.

2. Janis Joplin: Pearl

Personal Favorite: "Me and Bobby McGee"

Summarizing Lyric: "My love is like a seed, baby, just needs time to grow" off of "Trust Me"

Pearl rumbles forward like an enraged, but somehow graceful bull. I usually love that kind of consistency in albums, but I longed to enter more quiet valleys throughout the musical peak that is Pearl, valleys like the beginnings to “A Woman Left Lonely” and “Me and Bobby McGee” where Janis Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie tap the breaks, leave some space in the mix for unmanufactured emotions to fill-in. It was during these quiet moments on the album that I got the most chills, that I started to wonder whether or not Janis ever considered a version of “Me and Bobby McGee” without the wild ending. I know that sounds radical, that there is no “Me and Bobby McGee” without that ending, but just imagine, instead of burying the sadness of having her Bobby McGee leave with the “na na na nas,” what if Janis allowed herself to sink into the feelings of losing a lover, sink the way Sinatra did on In The Wee Small Hours or Beck did on Sea Change. Now, Sinatra had eight albums to become comfortable enough of a singer to be that emotional on a record, and Beck had seven, but there is some raw emotion, a rawness that Janis brought onstage, that is missing on Pearl. I do love hearing belts and am left with a sunken jaw whenever I hear Janis do it, but the ability to restrain talent, to use it at the right moment instead of every moment is what allows talent to transcend its status as a tool for creating art and into art. Janis is already heralded as one of the greatest singers of all time, but what a gift it would have been to hear her sing after having more time to meld with Full Tilt Boogie, more time to get to know herself, more time to master her talent; more time to cross the blurry line that divides legendary singers from legendary artists with a record even better than the already mind blowing Pearl.

1. Beck: Sea Change

Personal Favorite: "Guess I'm Doing Fine"

Summarizing Lyric: "In a random room behind an iron door, kick an empty can across an empty floor" off if "Side of the Road"

I rank the albums on this blog series based on personal preference and my preference leans towards unflinching honesty that is done well, emphasis on the done well. Being an honest performer is a challenge in itself that requires an intricate mix of unchecked ego and unbearably low self-esteem. Having such jumbled up emotions can lead to something honest, but ultimately too esoteric and whiny in execution. I have written many things that feel good and honest, but a quick revision and I’m desperately clawing the fifteen year old expression of fifteen year old feelings out of my ears. It’s not bad to express fifteen year old feelings, but they are only listenable when handled with maturity and that maturity is present on Sea Change, an honest break-up album done well. “Golden Age” is all one needs to understand the time Beck spent with his fifteen year old feelings and the cycles of analysis he put them through. The song’s western, “Wild Horses” chords blend with Nigel Godrich’s signature, oceanic production flourishes to create the feeling of a sea washing over a desert, the drowning of a dried up relationship, the passing of time that people feel hopeless against. Beck deals with the hopelessness in the way most do, “drive all night” to feel like he’s okay. Beck explains the state of mind required to make an album like Sea Change on “Side of the Road,” be “behind an iron door, [kicking] an empty can across an empty floor.” Many people have been in that isolated state of mind, but Beck’s maturity and musical knowledge helped him weave the darkness into gold, into creating something both esoteric and universal (“It’s only you that I’m losing. I guess I’m doing fine”), complex and simple (fluid strings fade in and out over basic acoustic chords), mature and childishly self destructive (“Holding onto to nothing to see how long nothing lasts)–honest. 

One Sentence Lesson:  Beck helped contribute to the case that Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan helped make with their breakup albums–honesty takes time to learn how to communicate (time that Janis Joplin had too little of and that Metallica moved through too fast) and requires great talent to make interesting (talent that Janis was inches from reigning and Metallica was too eager to change).