The Shirt That Should Not Be

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Is your understanding of Metallica the same as when you first heard them? I hope not. Music appreciation is not a static thing. Recorded music may stay the same, but we don't. We grow older and maybe wiser. Youthful triumphs seem like follies in retrospect. Hard lessons learned teach us more than teachers. As we bring our years to bear on parts of life like love and loss, so too we should with music.

Thus, even something as seemingly monolithic as Master of Puppets can be plastic. In recent years, as I've grown to appreciate slow music, "The Thing That Should Not Be" has become my new favorite Metallica song. Yes, that's possible. This exercise is not about fetishizing 1986. It's about celebrating 2011 and beyond with respect for 1986. Arguably a wave crested then; if so, may we ride it forever.

What I get from "The Thing" is negative space. Like most metal, Metallica's previous work was about filling space: riffs, solos, choruses, motion. But on a record with very clenched riffing ("Battery"'s gritted teeth precision is a precursor to ...And Justice for All's towering neurosis) lies this strange pool of emptiness. Yes, it has friction, some roadbumps where Lars Ulrich smacks in a backbeat. But that two-chord intro is a question without an answer. The song tries its hardest to find one. It throws counter-melodies, vocals, and harmonized solos at the problem. But still the song returns to its axis: two chords, the second just hanging there, pregnant with danger.

Lars Ulrich has hardly drummed better. During verses, he omits the snare and floats through restless accents with kicks. Anxious suspension results. The lyrics center on sight: killing the light, watching the sea. We're searching for something. We're unsure of its identity but not of our fear of it.

Even in my Lovecraft-less adolescence, the title gripped my imagination. There's something out there, but it shouldn't be. It's not that it shouldn't be a certain way, like how most things have room for improvement. It simply shouldn't exist. Something is so terrible that its very existence is undesirable. In a binary Christian framework, maybe that thing is Satan. But Satan has a name - many, actually. This "thing", on the other hand, has no name. It comes with no pictures attached, letting my mind fill in the gaps. Of course, it does so with terror.

Now in my adulthood, the "thing" could be other things. It could be cancer. It could be the animosity that drives people apart. Or it could be the demons one constructs to prevent oneself from reaching one's potential. Fear of the unknown drives people to religion. When that unknown is death, people are also driven to other things: fucking, procreating, making heavy metal. We behave like this when we don't have all the answers. Often it takes years to realize that. When that happens, the human form appears in stark relief against the vastness of the unknown. "The Thing" is a resounding snapshot of this.

— Cosmo Lee

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"The Thing That Should Not Be"

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