The Winter Of Our Content: Down, Out, & Unplugged in New York

I will shiver the whole night through.

I will shiver…

the whole

…night through.

Nirvana seemed to be a band who constantly toiled under a grey sky. Maybe this is because they are inseparable from the entity of Kurt Cobain, whose misery is well documented. But I think this impression also has a lot to do with how even at its most aggressive, their music isn’t empowering; it is truly malcontent. Whenever I put MTV Unplugged in New York on (and then invariably on repeat), it conjures up images of lonely narrators, empty plateaus and long dark nights. Evidently then, it’s a sombre listen. Even trying to assess this album disassociated from its context (as far as that is possible) and strictly through musical standards, I think, if only subconsciously, I will always hear this album as Cobain’s goodbye, the vocals simultaneously lethargic and agonised, too far gone to care, too far gone to even plug in (for the most part).

By the first chorus of About A Girl, it’s immediately obvious that playing acoustically exacerbates Nirvana’s tired, world–weary tone. Appropriately then, although not as immersive as the original, and not in grasp of its rage, the unplugged version of Come As You Are possesses its own poignancy. The guitar solo is no longer a whirlpool of abandonment, screaming out four notes on repeat, but a resigned, sighing melody with only the care to move between said four notes.

It quickly becomes obvious that loneliness looms over this album. Dumb has lyrics like ‘My heart is broke/But I have some glue’ and ‘I’m not like them/But I can pretend’, with a deep and brooding bass line and a woeful cello in the chorus. Likewise, Something In The Way uses the cello’s doleful timbre to its full effect, making it a real head–in–hands song, building on the wonderful image of ‘Underneath the bridge/the tarp has sprung a leak’. Similarly, there is a restless, dissatisfied feel to Meat Puppets cover Plateau, with its slow–nodding, disquieting, oozy riff. Closing tracking Where Did You Sleep Last Night rumbles and churns, anger ceaselessly building as a blues horror story is recounted. The strings really add a wounded, malcontent, I’m going to do something crazy vibe, and that’s before Cobain starts screaming, ending on ‘I will shiver/the whole/night through’.

When it’s not dominated by loneliness, the mood of the album still doesn’t stray too far from the negative end of the emotional spectrum. During Polly Cobain sounds tired, telling a stark story of abuse with the drums barely there, and whilst On A Plain is more lively, it’s still minor, being lyrically concerned with settling for new lows, with two sides to the declaration in the chorus ‘I’m on a plain/I can’t complain’. Even though Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam would almost sound cheery if it wasn’t for the morose vocals, with an accordion singing away, it is still about rejection and detachment. This atypical choice of covers continues into the fourth number, David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World. Despite starting out with a bit of a slacker vibe, with Cobain nonchalantly remarking ‘I guarantee you I will screw this song up’, the lyrics have a haunted, poetic quality; ‘I laughed and shook his hand/And made my way back home/I searched for form and land/For years and years I roamed’. Although the music has never really excited me, I think this cover suits Nirvana, because of its undercurrent of loneliness and soul–searching. In contrast, another Meat Puppets cover, Lake Of Fire, is snarling and unfriendly, dispensing scowling Biblical judgement; again, as great as the original is, in acoustic format, it possesses a bareness which draws attention to its gothic qualities.

Whilst trying to figure out what makes this album so well suited to the cold and to a sense of subdued life, it occurred to me that a connection exists between winter and acoustic music. Both possess a primal element, and, for lack of a better phrase, suggest a return to basics. When there is no electricity, when the act of creating music needs to be free from distraction, when the world needs to be left behind, the acoustic is there. Listening to this album outside, in dead woods, under grey skies, through cold waters, it told me that we walk alone.

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The Winter Of Our Content VI: And Winter For All.

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‘When a man lies
He murders some part of the world
These are the pale deaths
Which men miscall their lives
All this I cannot bear to witness any longer
Cannot the kingdom of Salvation take me home?’
(Gerhardt, Burton)

We’d be in at the deep end now if it wasn’t for all the ice. It’s been a while since I’ve listened to this album, but when the concept of this series first came to mind, it was at the top of the list. Its reputation as long, dense, cold and besotted by grief precedes it.

This album was my introduction to Metallica. It’s one of the first albums by any artist I ever heard, and was a power punch to my musical chin. I had borrowed it from the library and burnt a copy in time for a winter holiday, and subsequently spent a lot of time marvelling at it in snowy conditions. Musical elements like multiple fast guitar solos, ten minute songs, long instrumental sections and the theme of subverted justice were new and exciting to me. An uppercut from Metallica; I was floored.

I have two particularly strong memories of this album (aside from the strange smell of the library copy); the first is of being on said winter holiday, lying in a warm dark room, listening to it on repeat, watching snow pile up a world away against the high window. In one of those rare enjoyable occasions, time seemed to stretch out without pain, boredom or Victorian literature being involved. After a thousand thoughts, I roused, wondering what had occurred outside of my reverie, to find the world as though it had stopped turning, the passing of time marked only the rising snow level. 

The other memory is of being in the kitchen of the hut where I used to attend scouts, a couple of months after the holiday, and finding a CD player with an old mixtape one of the leaders had made with …And Justice For All on it, and being lost to all conversation for ten minutes, sucked into the song’s depths. Considering that a standard evening in the hut generally consisted of D.I.Y. ballistic devices, full–contact ball games, and someone always managing to find the metal baseball bat, it is testament to the quality of the song that I was absorbed by it so totally and effortlessly. When I started to write this piece I did consider the possibility that I may just be associating this album with winter because of the environment in which I first discovered it, but I think it’s something more than that. Much like winter, this album forms its own world, immersive in its density, unreserved in its gravitas, with an average track length of 7 minutes 32 seconds, and in possession of the heft of classical music, hinted at in Ride The Lightening and Master Of Puppets. However, whereas Kill ‘Em All was a party, Ride The Lightening was kinetic with the possibility of death, and Master Of Puppets mixed up violence and social disaffection, the prevalent theme of …And Justice For All is psychological damage. No beer drinking, charging into battle, breaking your arm on a skateboard here (again, scouts…). The only charge into battle here ends with a landmine. Although the reputation of Metallica was still that of hard–living guys with one foot in rock and the other in punk, musically they had gone beyond that. Lyrical themes across this album are corruption, the apocalypse, the illusion of choice, complete physical disability, being blacklisted, childhood trauma and mental illness. These new enemies are insidious; good luck trying to kill any of them, let alone kill ‘em all.

Blackened fades in with a heavily harmonised, epic wall of guitars and a wailing melody, with a sudden snap at 0.38 and riff after awesome riff in the following minutes. Although any apocalyptic scenario imaginable is certainly bleaker than any winter humanity has yet witnessed (the Russians reading this laugh), the long, sweeping thrust of the song, violent changes in pace and opening lines ‘Blackened is the end/Winter it will send’ invites the drawing of parallels. Reading through the lyrics (‘Death of mother earth/Never a rebirth/Evolution’s end/Never will it mend’), in my mind’s eye I see a thicket of mid–winter trees, black and thin, covered in grey snow. Each time I listen, I am reminded more and more of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and its endless nuclear winter.

It seems somewhat strange then, when.…And Justice For All enters with a classical guitar intro, then a burst of regal heaviness, these harmonised and distorted bursts quickly taking over. It slows down at 1.00 into a stop–start thrash moment; this is an album of long intros, and of long songs, with the vocals not entering until 2.15. This song is labyrinth in its complexity, with harmonisations and bursts of lead guitar all over the place, with a repeat of the old–school thrash break at 4.50, followed by a two–phase solo, which slows down into the verse riff at 5.55, then a stately riff at 6.15, leading to a descending chord sequence at 7.14, which in turns cycles back around into the final verse, with more harmonised lead guitars at end. Despite this kind of intricacy and length, these songs don’t feel long, being so well written. Lyrically it is about being faced by corruption wherever you turn, and the subversion of justice; ‘Lady Justice has been raped…Their money tips her scales again…Just what is truth? I cannot tell’.

Likewise, Eye Of The Beholder is about the illusion of choice, false freedom, and subversive means of oppression. There is no suggestion of hope nor of resistance; this oppression is absolute and all–consuming. It marches in with a hammering intro, tight and tense riffs maintaining this marching pace after a stop–start moment at 1.10, until a kind of call and response section right at the end, with a great guitar solo at 5.00.

There’s gunfire, someone shouting commands, explosions, a helicopter hovers into earshot, and as it passes by, a quiet, light, haunted minor riff enters. Whereas the preceding tracks all anticipate some kind of heaviness, and contain an unleashed, impending sense of power, One distinguishes itself by building up into heaviness. For 3 and a half minutes, there are only momentary and isolated bursts of distortion, and even upbeat, major sections at 1.27 and 2.18, brief flickers of hope, before they prove false, plunging back down after a couple of bars, accompanied by the lyrics ‘Hold my breath as I wish for death/Oh please God, wake me’. At 3.50 the impending heaviness is palpable, with patters of bass drum turning into full–on bursts, gunning away with the now–distorted guitars. The song writing in this transformative section is a lesson in crafting riffs, staccato slowly morphing into legato. The horror grows slowly, shifting from pleas of ‘oh please God wake me’ and ‘Look to the time when I’ll live’, to ‘I cannot live/I cannot die/Trapped in myself/ Body my holding cell’ and ‘Landmine…taken my soul/Left me with life in hell’. Even without any knowledge of the song’s lyrical source (Donald Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun), it unambiguously documents what has to be one of the most absolute nadirs of existence possible.

After the careful crafting of One, the Shortest Straw is harsh, with a rough stop–start intro riff, d–beat drumming for much of the song, a first for Lars surely, and two flash, raw solos. This is not an elaborate song, but it is a forceful one; life is harsh. Likewise, despite being much slower, Harvester of Sorrow is coarse, chugging away over pounding toms and snare rolls, dominated by a minor melody and a refrain of ‘harvester of sorrow’. 

As its title and subject matter suggests, The Frayed Ends Of Sanity changes up regularly, switching between speeds, with riffs for days, and an eerie, chanted intro. It’s a tense song, talking in abstracts about the tough subject of mental illness. It harmonises at 3.40, ascends through a chord sequence at 3.50 and goes into an excellent riff at 4.05, which really picks up the pace. After this it cycles through riff after riff, like a cyclical descent into madness; ‘Old habits reappear/Fighting the fear of fear’. 

As though born down by its own crushing weight, To Live Is To Die is the slowest track on the album. The classical guitar intro is abruptly consumed by a slow, looming wall of distorted guitars, more like a fast doom track than anything to do with thrash. At 2.35 a swaggering riff takes over, with a snaking melody over the top, and an excellent guitar solo at 3.15, with what sounds like a bit of kill switch trickery. Then at 4.30 a forlorn, despondent riff enters, which then harmonises by a minor third, before breaking into a single, clean guitar with an acoustic back–up, with a low EQ cut at 5.00, followed by string swells. The melancholic nature of this section is one of those riffs that brings to mind all of the sad occurrences, in my life, across the world, and in Metallica’s, and in particular, this song’s connection to Cliff Burton. After a minute and a half, with another guitar solo and harmonised section, the looming riff re–enters, with a spoken word section over top. These few lines, written by the late Cliff Burton, with their Biblical implications, confirm what the title suggests; that life itself is pain, that the simple act of being is anguish. Staccato chords fade out as the classical guitars of the intro fade back in. The dance goes on.

In contrast, closing track Dyers Eve is the fastest song on the album, with the long, reverb–heavy, tom–filled drum fill at 0.28 sounding as though it could have been plucked out of Kill ‘Em All. This is the ‘truest’ thrash song on the record, with fast drums, double bass in the verse, riffs with alternate picking, and a frantic, bare–toothed guitar solo. It ends as quickly as it starts, and listening to it in contrast to the rest of the album, it occurred to me that a lot of the album is actually mid–paced; here, Metallica’s emphasis has shifted from speed to scope. Fittingly, the lyrics rage against parental influence, but whereas an earlier Metallica or other thrash bands would have typically written about this subject with rebellion in mind (Motorbreath, Escape, or Suicidal Tendancies’ Institutionalized ), frustration, bitterness and arrested development rule here. Trying to find a link between the songs on this album, looking at the album art, reading the lyrics, listening to the riffs, the binding trait of the album seems to be its emphasis on nadirs. The winter of content indeed.

On a final note, Cosmo Lee has written a great series of articles, each one covering a Metallica song from their first four albums. Even having listened to Metallica as much as any other metalhead, I found myself astounded by their depth and knowledge. Definitely read them.