When James Hetfield Bared His Soul on Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’
Metallica stunned fans and critics with their self-titled fifth album — colloquially known as the Black Album — which pivoted from topical, breakneck thrash metal to pulverizing, catchy and even introspective hard rock.
Listeners were especially gobsmacked to hear "Nothing Else Matters," a bona fide power ballad inspired by James Hetfield's homesickness. But fans who had been paying attention to Metallica's ongoing musical evolution should have seen the song coming.
Before releasing the Black Album in 1991, Metallica had pushed the limits of thrash with 1984's Ride the Lightning, 1986's Master of Puppets and 1988's ... And Justice for All. This triptych of albums found the Bay Area four-piece writing increasingly technical, progressive arrangements while also exploring uncharted melodic territory. Lightning's gloomy suicide ballad "Fade to Black" earned Metallica sellout accusations, while Justice's epic war dirge "One" earned them a Grammy and put them on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time.
Metallica had traversed all sorts of sonic terrain across their first four albums, and Hetfield had whittled his sociopolitical commentary to a razor-sharp point. On the Black Album, and particularly "Nothing Else Matters," it was time for the singer to look inward. It wasn't difficult to do, with Hetfield wore down by the exhaustion and debauchery of the road and missing his girlfriend, Kristen Martinez.
Hetfield was initially reluctant to show "Nothing Else Matters" to his bandmates. "At first I didn't even want to play it for the guys,” he told Mojo in 2008. "I thought that Metallica could only be the four of us. These are songs about destroying things, head banging, bleeding for the crowd, whatever it is, as long as it wasn't about chicks and fast cars, even though that's what we liked. The song was about a girlfriend at the time. It turned out to be a pretty big song."
Despite Hetfield's reservations, the demo of "Nothing Else Matters" received positive feedback from his bandmates, particularly drummer Lars Ulrich, who welcomed the change from such intense, topical subject matter. "We went through our CNN years, as we call it, where me and James would sit on the couch and watch CNN and go, 'Yeah, we can write a song about this new political turmoil,'" Ulrich told Rolling Stone in 1991. "The political thing has been played out. Some of the things on the last album were things that pissed me off. ... This time, the songs are the result of what's been lingering in James. You can look around for things that make you mad and you write about them. This time, it's a matter of looking within, at the experiences you've been through."
Watch Metallica's 'Nothing Else Matters' Video
"It's a song that's not safe," Hetfield asserted in the same interview. "It takes some nerve to do. We're not supposed to do something like that. Then you turn around and go, 'Well, who said we couldn't? We're running the show here.'"
Still, Hetfield was terrified when Metallica debuted "Nothing Else Matters" at the Black Album listening party at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 3, 1991. "I had to run out there and see what they thought, if they were killing themselves or killing each other. Or falling asleep," he admitted. Yet he was pleasantly surprised by the audience's reaction. "They were really attentive," he enthused. "They were really listening to what it said."
Although early signs pointed to Metallica having a hit on their hands with "Nothing Else Matters," they still waited more than six months after the release of the Black Album to premiere the song live on March 2, 1992, in Cincinnati. "We kept putting it in the set and taking it out until we were certain we were actually able to play it," guitarist Kirk Hammett told The Village Voice in 2012. "I had to relearn that whole intro part to play by myself onstage, which was a little bit intimidating for me at that point. We never had a song that started that way. After a while, once we got it down, it was no problem. Once we put our sights onto whipping a song into shape and getting it together and ready to play, we're pretty good about putting it together and making it happen."
Metallica released "Nothing Else Matters" as the third single off the Black Album on April 20, 1992. The song peaked at No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100, one rung above "One" and the Black Album's second single and fellow power ballad, "The Unforgiven." But its modest chart placement belies its impact and legacy.
"Nothing Else Matters" proved that Metallica had the guts and the skill to write poignant, heartfelt songs that resonated with listeners across generations. Hetfield, in particular, put his heart on the line, and fans rewarded him by making "Nothing Else Matters" one of the most vaunted songs in Metallica's catalog. In the decades since its release, it has been used for everything from first dances at weddings to tributes to fallen members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. Elton John even praised the track as "one of the best songs ever written" and covered it on 2021's The Metallica Blacklist alongside Miley Cyrus and Chad Smith.
"It's absolutely crazy, that was the song that I thought was least Metallica, least likely to ever played by us, the last song anyone would really want to hear," Hetfield marveled to The Village Voice in 2012. "It was a song for myself in my room on tour when I was bumming out about being away from home. It's quite amazing. It's a true testament to honesty and exposing yourself, putting your real self out there and taking the risk, taking a gamble that someone's either going to step on your heart with spikes on or they're going to put their heart right next to it, and you never know until you try. That solidified, I think, that we were doing the right thing, writing from the heart about what we felt, and you can't go wrong that way."