As discussed previously, whilst the focus of this blog is on the underground, it’s also important to remember that mainstream artists can also release music that’s more than worthwhile, or challenging in some way. With this in mind, I’ll be giving here my thoughts on three very different mainstream albums I spent some time with this year, taking in David Bowie‘s Blackstar; Head Carrier by The Pixies; and Metallica‘s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct. This was initially planned as a short section on a previous End Of Year post, but grew in to its own beast; here it is, in all its chart-topping, special edition glory.
Nowhere is the potential of mainstream music exemplified than in Blackstar, the final album by David Bowie. Even if his death days after release added extra power and meaning to many of the lyrics, this is still one of the strangest, most difficult, and emotionally powerful albums to be released by a mainstream artist in years and years. That it was a commercial success is heartening, showing that there is genuine appetite out there for music that is not simple, easy, or immediate. After all, the first track is essentially ten minutes of Bowie doing whatever the fuck he wants, taking a single song in to all sorts of strange places, with lyrics that hint at much but reveal little, accompanied by a music video that only adds to the strangeness of the actual song. And that’s all without considering the mysteries hidden within the packaging and artwork, which are sure to be discussed years from now. It’s that most rare thing, a mainstream album as a genuine cultural event, and even if Bowie were still alive, Blackstar would be considered amongst his very best work. No one had any right to expect an album so challenging and daring this far in to Bowie’s career, yet that’s what we got.
By contrast, it seems that The Pixies can’t do much right these days in the eyes of many. Even if they opted to play shows largely ignoring their new album, Head Carrier, and sticking solely to “the hits”, people would still complain that Kim Deal isn’t back in the band. There’s no denying that The Pixies have changed since they broke and then re-formed – which band wouldn’t, given the passage of so much time? Yet, if you set aside inflated expectations due to the fact that this is the band who released so many classic albums and songs in their first run, Head Carrier is a solid, enjoyable half hour of alt-rock. It may lack the same strangeness that make their earlier output so irresistible, but there’s still a sense of how to write great songs. Not a classic, but still worth your while.
I wish I could say the same about the new Metallica. As with The Pixies, I don’t expect them to sound like they did in the 80’s ever again; that’s just unrealistic in all sorts of different ways. But I don’t think I could hum you anything off Death Magnetic, and whilst Hardwired… To Self-Destruct is a considerable improvement over that album, it’s not as good as I hoped for. It starts off strongly, though. The opening track implies the band have learnt the lessons of St Anger (where the real issue wasn’t the production, but the length of the songs – not to mention the lyrics), clocking in at a decent three minutes of fury and rage rather than a bloated six or more, whilst ‘Atlas, Rise!’ is probably the best song Metallica have recorded in absolutely forever, coming within touching distance of their 80’s glory days. It starts to trail off from there though, starting with the way that ‘Now That We’re Dead’ is hamstrung by the awful drum sound (a recurring problem on Metallica records, but placed front-and-centre by this song’s opening). It reaches a nadir with ‘Man Unkind’ and the lyrically vapid ‘Here Comes Revenge’. It’s sad that a band who once wrote genuinely intelligent, thoughtful, moving thrash metal tracks are now releasing such banalities. ‘Am I Savage?’ is caught between Load-esque riffs and an attempt at tapping in to their original inspirations on the chorus that’s so blatant, it’s embarrassing. It does end strongly though, with ‘Spit Out The Bone’ upping the tempo and aggression, whilst still retaining a strong sense of melody.
The real tragedy of Hardwired… is that there’s a halfway decent album somewhere in there; it’s just too damn long. Too many mid-tempo riffs and repeated sections sap any energy that the album builds up, and a host of empty lyrics don’t help matters. It drags, leaving a sour taste in the mouth. I know there’s a lot of people out there who have enjoyed this album, and fair play to them; but aside from a few tracks, all I hear is another missed opportunity. But, what do I know. I’d sooner listen to St Anger than any of Metallica’s other post-80’s albums.