Metallica’s last album, 2003’s St. Anger, with its raw, messy, unfocused songs and dingy production, was like group therapy on CD, and spoke to the personal demons that the band members were dealing with. It wasn’t exactly a good album, but it was a daring one, a completely uncompromised artistic statement.
The band’s follow-up, Death Magnetic, is slickly produced and surprisingly impersonal, and a clearly calculated maneuver to recapture the sound of Metallica past. So on the surface, it’s a return to the time of 1986’s Master of Puppets and (especially) 1988’s … And Justice for All. But Metallica have gone through a ton of artistic evolution since then, and they’re not the same band they were in the late ’80s. The bits of punk and goth and country and blues and pop that crept their way into the sound of albums like 1996’s sorely underrated Load have been summarily stripped away, but the result is not that Metallica sound like old Metallica; it’s that they sound like some band trying to sound like old Metallica.
The other problem is that despite the cleaned-up production, the songwriting here is just as sloppy as it was on St. Anger; only three of the 10 songs are shorter than seven minutes, and nearly all of the tracks run together in an indistinguishable mass. There’s a complete lack of structure to the songs, although there are solid riffs and catchy choruses buried here and there amid the endless bridges and instrumental passages. Those old songs were long, too, but they always built to something; the songs on Death Magnetic go nowhere, and almost all of them go nowhere in the exact same way.
Frontman James Hetfield retreats from the introspective lyrics of the recent past to deliver only generic menace; it took me four minutes of the 10-minute instrumental “Suicide & Redemption” to realize that it had no words. The one welcome return is lead guitarist Kirk Hammett’s solos, which were left off of St. Anger. He brings them back with a ferocity that’s absent from the songwriting, the production (from respectability maven Rick Rubin) and everything else on this deceptively timid album.