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Music | Opinion

Hear Me Out: Metallica's James Hetfield is the worst metal lyricist of all time

Solidifying themselves as the best-selling metal band of all time, Metallica must have done something right. Lars Ulrich’s floor-tom heavy drumming, combined with some of the chuggiest riffs you are likely to hear from Kirk Hammett resulted in a band with one hand on a perpetual dominance of music’s heaviest genre.

Yet there is one thing in particular with Metallica that, for me, just utterly lets them down, withdraws any modicum of respect and turns them into a complete and utter cringe-inducing nightmare. That ‘thing’ is their lead singer and lyricist, the one, the only, Mr James Hetfield.

Since the dawn of Metallica, there has been a constant tussle for the title of the band’s biggest arsehole. It is a battle fought between the sheer arrogance of Ulrich and the idiocy and complete lack of self-awareness of Hetfield.

The documentary Some Kind of Monster was intended to chronicle the band recording their ‘comeback’ album St. Anger. While the film did document the troublesome production of the record, it mainly showed that Hetfield was essentially a spoilt brat who threw his toys out the pram any time something did not even remotely go his way.  

That, and the fact that the vast sums of money was constantly being transferred into Metallica’s bank accounts, inflated the failed tennis player’s head (Ulrich’s) so much that, by all logical accounts, it should have exploded into smithereens and done us all the favour of never hearing another arrogant word spew forth from his repulsive mouth.

If only Hetfield had just an inkling of self-reflective capabilities, then he may have been able to churn out lyrics that actually meant something. Creations that listeners could find kinship with and treasure, which, coincidentally, brings me to my main point. 

The fact remains that Hetfield is an astonishingly lousy lyricist. While metal is not necessarily the most introspective of genres – with a large emphasis on the energy – Hetfield has inadvertently penned some of the worst lyrics of all time. Take, for instance, “Suck on the barrel, suck on the barrel, suck it until it’s gone dry”, “What don’t kill you, make you more strong”, or even the astonishingly bad, “My lifestyle determines my death style”.

Of course, Metallica’s tunes are not designed to be reincarnations of Joni Mitchell songs, but as far as I am aware, Hetfield believes himself to be some kind of metal-Shakespearian genius. Yet, the bard he is undoubtedly not. In fact, Hetfield primarily relies on a well-trodden method of ‘rhyming one dark thing with another dark thing’. Even take Metallica’s beloved ‘Enter Sandman‘ and the lyrics: “Exit life/Enter night/Take my hand/We’re off to never-never land”. Whilst these words are probably some of Hetfield’s better efforts, they are starkly lacking in introspection, intelligence and anything remotely resembling poetry.

Funnily enough, the lyrics found in ‘Enter Sandman’ are not the original words that Hetfield wrote. The song’s writing serves as one of the only instances in which Ulrich and Metallica’s producer, Bob Rock, felt that Hetfield could write better lyrics than he had initially offered. I would genuinely dread to see the first draft of those words.

The ardent need to rhyme illuminates a lyricist who is utterly clueless as to how to compose, persistently relying on rhymes which result in lyrics that only resemble the frightened verse of primary school children. I will leave you with a perfect example, with words taken from Metallica’s ‘Dirty Window’: “Projector, rejector, infector, injector, defector”. Say no more.

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