Metallica wastes no time unleashing a grim assessment of the state of things on the album opener and title track to Hardwired… to Self-Destruct. Five lines in, frontman James Hetfield loads a pair of shells into his double-barrel expletive shotgun and pulls the trigger: “We’re so f—ked/S— outta luck/Hardwired to self-destruct.” It’s a smack-in-the-face chorus he’ll repeat two more times before song’s end.
Lyrics like those will come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed these Bay Area thrash metal titans throughout their three-decade career. After all, perpetually growling and scowling Hetfield has never been accused of having a sunny disposition.
But Hetfield’s profane, pessimistic perspective isn’t quite representative of the album as whole, a sprawling (and at times even spiritually aware) effort that also ponders what it might take to avoid self-destructing.
Bleak-sounding “Now That We’re Dead” includes hopeful lyrics about integrity, faith and the afterlife. “When the reaper calls/May it be/That we walk straight and right,” Hetfield sings. “When doubt returns/May it be/That faith shall permeate our scars.” We also hear, “When kingdom comes/May it be/We walk right through that open door.” As for the main subject of the song, it’s about a man’s (admittedly Jesus-free) hope to spend eternity with someone he loves: “Now that we’re dead, my dear/We can be together/ … We can live forever.”
“ManUNkind” also includes spiritual allusions. The song deals with a quest to find goodness in an inhumane world, and Hetfield suggests that problem goes all the way back to Eden: “Garden/Of Eden, so simple and pure/Greedy/Needy, we must have more.” The song suggests that our greed has led to the repetition of inhuman acts ever since: “Decimate/Lessons we never learn/Dominate/Killing of the innocence/Deviate/And to dust you return.”
“Moth into Flames” critiques celebrity culture and the self-destructive things people do to become famous. “Decadence/Death of the innocence/The pathway starts to spiral.” That path includes drugs (“Pop queen/Amphetamine”), compromise (“Sold your soul”), seduction (“Fame is the murderer/Seduce you into ruin”) and the heartless indifference of others (“Now you’re thrown away/Same rise and fall/Who cares at all?”). The song even suggests that nothing cements fame as surely as a celebrity suicide (“Guarantee your name, you go and kill yourself/The vultures feast around you still/Overdose on shame and insecurity”).
“Confusion” tells of a disoriented soldier struggling to make sense of post-war life. “Leave the battlefield/Yet its horrors never heal/Coming home from war/Pieces don’t fit anymore.” For some, the outcome is tragic: “Label him a deadwood soldier now/Cast away and left to roam.” We also hear, perhaps, the plea of a son who longs for his father to be fully present again: “Father, please come home.”
“Spit Out the Bone” is a cautionary tale that says our ever-increasing reliance upon technology is actually dehumanizing us. It ends in a sci-fi, Terminator-like flourish in which godlike machines finish off humanity: “Long live machine/The future supreme/Man overthrown/Spit out the bone.”
“Halo on Fire” suggests that our desires can lead us in destructive directions (“Fast is desire/Creates another hell”). “Here Comes Revenge” seems to be written from the personified perspective of Revenge, who says of his violent work, “Man has made me oh so strong/Blurring lines of right and wrong/ … Now it’s come to sweet revenge.” But what the revenge-seeker hopes will be “sweet” actually isn’t: “Desperate hands/That lose control/Have no mercy on your soul.” The song also suggests that those who seek revenge may one day incur it themselves: “Here comes revenge, just for you/Revenge you can’t undo.”
“Am I Savage” hints that a man’s violent tendencies are due in part to watching his father act violently when he was a child.
As mentioned above, hopeless and bleak “Hardwired” includes three uses each of the f- and s-words. The album’s other lone profanity is one use of “d–n.”
“Dream No More” details the spiritually destructive appetite of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s most famous monster, Cthulhu. “And he haunts you/And he binds your soul/And he loathes you/And reclaims it all/ … Sanity taken/Seething damnation/ … Cthulhu, awaken.” “Am I Savage” uses werewolf imagery to talk about how a son has become like his violent father.
“Halo on Fire” seems to imply that God’s spiritual aid is out of reach: “Prayers cannot get through/Return to sender/ … Dark resurrection/Lighting up the skies/Wicked perfection.” The song ends repeating, “Hello darkness/Say good-bye.” Taken out of context from the rest of the song, a line on “Here Comes Revenge” could be heard as saying that retribution trumps forgiveness: “You ask forgiveness, I give you sweet revenge.” Likewise, though “Murder One” is likely a critique of our violent society, these lines taken in isolation are nevertheless disturbing: “Murder all/Murder one/Gimme murder/Second class to none.”
“ManUNkind” may suggest that there’s no hope for us: “Chaos/Awaiting for Adam’s return/Madness/Smiling as we watch it burn.”
Can hope and hopelessness coexist? If you’re Metallica, the answer seems to be yes these days.
In an interview with Guitar World magazine, James Hetfield said, “‘Hardwired’ is the first song on the album, but it was actually the last song we wrote. In my mind, it’s more of a summary of the whole album than an opening statement. Lyrically, I wanted it to be really simple, fast, quick and punk rock. The idea is to make it communal. You know, we’re f—ed. All of us. But we’re blessed as well, because we’re all in this together.”
There are moments of togetherness here where optimism and determination push back against the ever-lurking specter of despair. Then again, there’s that other profanity-punctuated point of view to reckon with as well.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.