re-examining songs from my youth, part 1: "the unforgiven", metallica


At the time of the release of the untitled, or "Black" album, no one would have dreamed that "The Unforgiven" would have been eclisped in popularity and fame by the other slow song, "Nothing Else Matters". In 1991, you'd have been scoffed at if you claimed that "Nothing Else Matters" was the more timeless work. Yet, in 2006, I would argue that "N.E.M." has far more prominent cultural status, and not just because society has forgotten the video and the weird old dude's Sisyphean labor of cutting out blocks of clay. No, the real reason is amateur guitar players, and their affinity for the opening instrumental part of "N.E.M." I know at least three people who can play virtually nothing else on acoustic guitar, aside from the beginning part of "Nothing Else Matters".

Some quick lyrical analysis reveals that this song is about being controlled, punished, disgraced and ultimately broken by other people. In the end, James Hetfield takes revenge on everyone that incorrectly labeled him in the past. Now, the dubbee has become the dubber! You labeled him? He'll label you, bitches!

My friend Garrick has pointed out one unique element to the composition: "You don't hear the word 'dub' in very many songs". I would add that, if you do hear "dub", it will usually be describing the echo-heavy drum-and-bass reggae sound of a remix. Modern music listeners might be confused by Hetfield's terminology here. To clarify, being dubbed "Unforgiven" can be considered analogous to getting served, though with much less breakdancing.

This is not Metallica's only lexical anachronism, however. They also use "thee", the objective case of the word "thou". Sticklers for consistency in usage might argue that the song's angry, shouted denoument would more properly read, "Thou labeled me/ I'll label thee/ So I dub thee unforgiven".

Karaoke note: Lyrics to "Unforgiven" include transcriptions of the song's unique Hetfieldian phrasing. Example: "That never to this day-ay/His will they'd take away-ay-ay".

Finally, I would like to examine the "surprise ending" at the end of the second verse. After detailing the struggles and despair of an "old man", we learn "That old man here is me". Careful listeners should not be surprised. The whole verse is the equivalent of a self-conscious James Hetfield embarrassedly talking to a therapist.

Hetfield: Well, I'm fine. But I have this friend - I'll dub him "the old man". Anyway, everyone's dedicating their lives to running all of his. And I try -- I mean, the old man tries -- to please them all, but they're just battling him constantly. And --

Therapist: James, can I ask you something? This friend of yours, the old man -- James, this old man he you?

Hetfield: I'm not sure I understand what you're saying. Maybe it would be more clear if you phrased it in Middle English.

Therapist: James, this old man he thou?

Hetfield: Yes! (Breaks down sobbing)

My opinion should not be considered the definitive take on this song. After the jump, see what internet commenter "lyricstudent" had to say about "The Unforgiven", on

"The new blood joins this earth.. That's talking about me.. Talking about you.. talking about all of us American men.. the multicultarist race nazi morons wouldn't like the truth.. but this is work is a genuine WHITE piece of culture -- it doesn't mean you can't enjoy it if you aren't white.. but the songs just not talking about you.. emphasize men.. no offense to the lesser gender.. and it only makes sense to me that it's talking about American men... i just don't think it's going so far as referring to the sweat shops in indonesia.. regardless of hardships that we are unaware of elswhere in the world...

"-THIS SONG IS NOT A SOCIOLOGY PROJECT! NOt seeking racial generality. Ok.. this is putting racial thoughts into the bands mouths... the main point is -- Look at them/... Do you relate to them? I do. I share their cultural upbringing, you damn nazi..

"New blood joins this earth.. and the truth is, I and the rest of you miserable bastards have to make sacrifices, compromises, in order to follow the social order.. the fate is to die regretfully.. You teenagers don't even know what you are going through yet.. But 999 out of 1000, your dreams are only there to give you pain in your process of inner and outer failure...

"(P.S. I am not racist. Just trying to encourage significant meanings in open discussion, without worrying about assholes who get offended.)"


as a member of the lesser gender, I mostly listened to the inferior goth band type-o negative when growing up. so this post means nothing to me. i am not a racist either, as long as everyone knows their place.

i don't capitilize either america or indonesia in order to eschew favoritism. unlike a racist.

As a racist myself, I´m tired of didofoot´s sociological cultural crap.

I would beg to differ on a single point (the Nazi business makes perfect sense). When the album came out in 1991, when I bought it, and when I attended the concert at the then unnamed stadium in Oakland, "Nothing Else Matters" was the favorite song (as measured by general swaying, lighter-raising and eighth-grade slow-dancing). Then during the summer when the video came out "Unforgiven" briefly eclipsed NEM before becoming overplayed. Ah, to return to my metalhead days of yore!

Yeah, to be honest, I have to admit that your observation mirrors my own experience with the two songs. "Unforgiven" changed my friggin´ life when I first heard it and saw the video on MTV. I knew practically nothing about music at the time beyond the oldie´s station and "Unforgiven" immediately became my anthem. I hated "Nothing Else Matters" at the time and its boring video. But something changed, I grew up. Of the two, "Unforgiven"´s not the one I air guitar to this day. Cool video, though.

I don't think that being used and broken is an exclusive American hardship. It is, though, a genuine American song. It still doesn't mean that a Canadian band, for instance, could have written a completely identical song in basic message...

Also, as a teenager, and new fan of Metallica, I prefer the Unforgiven II. Why? Because I can never really feel used, abused or broken when I see the real people with the real hardships in their life which are much greater compared to American ''drama-queen-ism''.

The Unforgiven II is literally about forgiving no one and ending up alone, as James said, but I like the fact that both songs are completely inverted on melodical terms. For example:

Unforgiven I: Harder verses, but slow and softer chorus.

Unforgiven II: Softer and more melodic verses, compared to a much harder and rythmic chorus.

N.E.M. is for me more important generally than the Unforgiven mainly because it has beena gateway for many new Metallica fans to play their first Metallica song without too much trouble... What makes a great song is not only its listening quality, but also its playing accessibility ;)

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