Metallica: The First Four Albums – “One”

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“One” is Metallica’s “Stairway to Heaven”. They’re long and popular ballads, which probably means that after a while they become live nooses. Robert Plant said about “Stairway”, “There’s only so many times you can sing it and mean it”. According to Chapter Inc., Metallica has played “One” live 1232 times. 1232 times! James Hetfield has embodied a limbless landmine survivor 1232 times in front of thousands. What an acting job!

The question is not if Metallica ever phoned “One” in; it’s how often they have. I can’t imagine playing “One” (a) in public (b) repeatedly. Minus over-exposure and cultural baggage, it’s a mighty force. Imagine that your job is to conjure that force, or at least a reasonable facsimile, thousands of times night after night, or else thousands will have felt cheated. You would probably come to hate work. I suppose every hit becomes an albatross around the neck for its band. If so, Metallica are a caravan of ten-ton albatrosses. People only want to hear your old stuff: what a curse.

I myself wouldn’t feel cheated by a live omission of “One”. I wouldn’t want to hear “Hold my breath as I wish for death” amongst thousands. Do they sing along? Do they raise beer cups and elbow their buddies because it’s a song they know? I don’t want to know. “One” is in my headphones now, rapping at my consciousness. The knock is hollow, insistent. “Listen to my story”, it says. “Come to me”. But it’s not easy to come to. It looks weird, top-heavy. The riffs are big, and the vocals are yearning. But the rhythm section sounds tiny. It’s like those guys at the gym who only work out their upper bodies.

For most every other song in this series, I’ve renewed vows, so to speak. But I still resist “One”. Why? Is it just over-play? Can no one appreciate Beethoven’s 5th now? Metal comes with so many fences. There are those others build: “You should not listen to this”. “You are inferior if you do”. “This music is not for you”. Then there are the fences one builds oneself: “I’m not supposed to like this”. “I am X, and this music is not X, so I must dislike it”. I listen to “One” now, and I don’t swoon like I did when I was child. I suppose the first time one hears double bass drums applied as such – that’s a watershed moment that’s tough to top.

The heart may not be willing, but the head is. Distance can yield appreciation. “One” is a masterful tapestry, building on the “blooming” harmonies of “Fight Fire with Fire”, but weaving them into the song’s fabric instead of toggling them on and off. The song moves fluidly. It takes four minutes and 35 seconds to peak at its machine gun passage, but, really, we’re there before we know it. This is “…And Justice for All” perfected, that regal plod pushed into higher potential.

For what seems like a long, complex epic, “One”’s power boils down to one thing: the shoe dropping. The narrator wakes up at its start. He’s disoriented; he “can’t tell if this is true or dream”. He’s miserable, but there’s a glimmer of hope: “Oh, please, God help me”. Well, no. During the instrumental bridge, dread mounts. Then the hammer of realization hits. “Absolute horror”. Game over. The last line: “Left me with life in hell”. To live is to die, indeed.

Musically, the song mirrors this progression. The first half of the song is in B. The second half is in E. One could see the first half as one long B chord resolving to the song’s true key, E. This is the classic chord resolution in Western music, V to I. The V chord (in this case, B) is the state of highest tension, which resolves to the baseline state of the I chord (in this case, E). So this song starts out in a state of tension. The shoe is waiting to drop. And when it does, it’s war. The memories flood back. We’re in a firefight, and there’s no way out, not even death.

Conjure that nightmare again and again? And get paid to do so? Either you lie back and think of England, or you build up fucking heavy psychic damage. Or, you become a great actor.

— Cosmo Lee

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“One”

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METALLICA: THE FIRST FOUR ALBUMS

“Eye of the Beholder”
“…And Justice for All”
“Blackened”
“Damage Inc.”
“Orion”
“Leper Messiah”
“Disposable Heroes”
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”
“The Thing That Should Not Be”
“Master of Puppets”
“Battery”
“The Call of Ktulu”
“Creeping Death”
“Escape”
“Trapped Under Ice”
“Fade to Black”
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
“Ride the Lightning”
“Fight Fire With Fire”
“Metal Militia”
“Seek & Destroy”
“No Remorse”
“Phantom Lord”
“Whiplash”
“(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”
“Jump in the Fire”
“Motorbreath”
“The Four Horsemen”
“Hit the Lights”

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