Hits and Misses: Metallica, Sharon Van Etten, and American Football

Our critical roundtable disembowels the hits of today and tomorrow

Every week, MTV’s writers and critics assemble and weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop-music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Charles Aaron, Hazel Cills, David Turner, Jessica Hopper, Hilary Hughes, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.

Sharon Van Etten, "Not Myself"

Aaron: This is just gorgeous; I can even imagine it having been played at the prayer vigils that were held all around Orlando after the shooting. The phrase that she settles on — “I want you to be yourself around me” — only aches and aches with more impact as the song edges forward slowly, Van Etten echoing herself with a chorale of hmmm hmmms, never quite slipping into a dirge, powerfully and quietly mourning.

Hopper: How “ashes of the aftermath” unfurls off her tongue with an almost Springsteenian burr and mirrors the stasis of mourning with shiftless strings — they almost sound like an air organ. She pulls a kind of weight here that is heavy, even for her.

Cills: I get chills every time I hear Sharon Van Etten’s voice. And I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever heard her voice this way before, when she rests in that gravelly deep tone, then soars all high on lines like “please darling, believe in something.” That mantra “I want you to be yourself” is so deceptively simple. I like that Etten reached for what should be such a universal, easy request but by playing it against the song’s ominous choral “hmmms” and intense orchestral backdrop she really emphasizes how impossible that can be in today's America.

Hughes: One of the best things about Sharon as both a writer and a performer is her ability to stare down the brutal stuff with an unblinking commitment: She forces us to size up the damage and think on it, even when — especially when — it hurts to do so. With “Not Myself,” the economics floor me. Her minimalist approach, lyrically and otherwise, gives us just enough space for memory to swell in the wordless stretches. Her notes keep us rooted here, present and very much alive, as her voice itself mourns a deep loss.

American Football, "I've Been Lost for So Long"

Aaron: Not to be confused with Modern Baseball or American Wrestlers! I had a lot of respect for these guys’ lone 1999 album — sideways, muso emo/pop-punk featuring electric piano, trumpet, and JAZZ CHORDS — but I didn’t return to it much afterward and never got why it became such an influential totem. Listening again recently, though, the delicately sharp musicianship, expansive arrangements, and lack of whiny-boy posturing were refreshing, especially considering how the genre evolved throughout the 2000s. So I was cautiously hopeful for their first album in 17 years, at least until, like virtually every other emo band that tries to step into the conventional pop-rock songwriting arena, they come out sounding like Death Cab for Cutie without the hunger to hug the kids in the cheap seats. There’s nothing wrong with this song, really; it just hangs out and sparkles sorrowfully. No bridge, no quirks, just dear-diary lyrics: “I can’t believe my life is happening to me?”; “This is me reaching out to you”; “Maybe I’m asleep and this is all a dream.” Cue male tears.

Cills: I come to this song having never listened to American Football! Emo is one of my critical blindspots. Alas, this is unexpectedly sweet? I have foggy conceptions of emo being sort of bratty, that "whiny-boy" vibe you mention, Charles, and this comes nowhere near that. I'm almost getting kind of a Red House Painters vibe from this?

Turner: I would’ve confused this band with Modern Baseball if not for the heads-up, so thanks! The emo revival of late is very much outside of my own musical purview growing up, too — where I listened to some Brand New, I listened to Lupe Fiasco. Whenever I give a nu-emo band a chance these days, I wish it hit me a little closer. “I’ve Been Lost for So Long” is perfectly fine sad dad rock. I envision a lot of khaki pants and sweaters at their concerts.

Vozick-Levinson: As a dad who is, on occasion, sad, this should be right up my alley, but like the rest of you, I find that it leaves me curiously cold. The quiet melancholy in Mike Kinsella's voice contrasts nicely with the bright jangle of the guitars; the song fulfills its modest ambitions neatly and well, but there's nothing it does that the next related track on SoundCloud, PWR BTTM's "New Hampshire," doesn't do with more invention, warmth, and verve.

Metallica, "Hardwired"

Hughes: The opening snare blitz is the aural equivalent of the drill at the dentist’s. I am upset.

Turner: I'm not sure I’ve heard anything Metallica has done since The Black Album, which, for the record, came out prior to me even being born. Still, “Hardwired” is the kind of thrash/speed metal that I absolutely loved in high school, when my ears were still adjusting to the metalcore beloved by my peers. Is it as strong as their '80s classics? Maybe not, but it's a great opening single from a band that’s been attached to some strange projects this decade.

Aaron: I have heard most of the stuff they’ve done since The Black Album, but I can’t say that I gave a shit about much of it. This, on the other hand, immediately clubs you over the head and grunts loudly, “Metallica, motherfucker,” which is exactly what I want from them. Seems like they mostly sorted out their production issues so that this sounds like a rock band playing together, instead of an indistinct, inhuman roar. Though like many before me, I can’t believe that a high-profile drummer like Lars Ulrich remains such a ham-fisted disaster. As Hilary mentioned, he starts out with the unnecessary bludgeoning and the lack of dynamics are painfully apparent from then on. With another drummer, this could’ve been a scalding thrash geyser, with the legit explosion it deserves. Still, it rips ass.

Hopper: Is the extreme high-end/bassless mix here an aesthetic tribute to the tape-trading culture in the metal underground of the '80s? Is it supposed to endear us to riding along on this dead pony?

Vozick-Levinson: James Hetfield is like, "We're so fucked / Shit out of luck!" and I'm like, hmmm, true! Turn on the news — the guy has a point. This song captures the extreme fuckedness of Trumpism, global warming, and the overall hell of modernity better than almost anyone lately in a punchy three minutes and change — strange but true. Who guessed that Metallica would be one of the defining bands of Summer '16?