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Lyrics Analysis: Metallica - The Unforgiven

28 April 2014, 10:07

I love listening to Metallica, and for the first time I decided to contemplate the full message and meaning behind the lyrics of a favourite Metallica song of mine The Unforgiven.

What follows is a deep but drunken analysis of the lyrics of the song and what they may refer to.

After a brief instrumental intro, the vocal component of the song starts,

New blood joins this earth,

And quickly he's subdued.

Through constant pained disgrace

The young boy learns their rules.

The opening verse is undoubtedly about being born (new blood joins this earth) and being prevented from becoming rebellious (and quickly he’s subdued). The latter part of the verse details the growing up process being achieved through punishment and humiliation, to instil a high level of conformity in that which was born free.

Verse two then commences,

With time the child draws in.

This whipping boy done wrong.

Deprived of all his thoughts

The young man struggles on and on.

To be drawn in is either to be coloured in or to be led in a direction forcibly or involuntarily. So in verse two the individual is still present but losing out to the system. Grammar often suffers for the sake of rhythm, so the line ‘This whipping boy done wrong’ is unclear, but could suggest innocence in the face of punishment. Now the will breaks (Deprived of all his thoughts, the young man struggles on…). Indeed the tide is too strong.

Then follows,

He's known a vow unto his own,

That never from this day

His will they'll take away.

As with all defeats, one has a last moment of utmost struggle. It seems the character swears to himself that they will not rob him of his will(power). One would almost expect this of someone who is of the age where they just enter the corporate mill (perhaps after graduating university). Youthful exuberance and defiance are usually at their strongest at this point.

But the song tells us that the character was, indeed, defeated, for in the first chorus of the song, lamentation is clearly audible:

What I've felt,

What I've known

Never shined through in what I've shown.

Never be.

Never see.

Won't see what might have been.

The first three lines of the chorus clearly explain that nothing of what the character is about ever showed in any of his work. The artist is divorced from his art; it is not the art he would have created. Once we are dead, all that remains to identify us to the world is our works that we leave behind (think Einstein, for example).

The last three lines of the chorus are haunting! This is the proverbial gnashing of teeth. He will never ‘be’ (what he was destined to be) and will never ‘see’ the successes of that life he never got to live (Wont’ see what might have been).

They dedicate their lives

To running all of his.

He tries to please them all –

This bitter man he is.

Anyone who has done any stint in especially the corporate mill will identify with the words of this verse.

Throughout his life the same –

He's battled constantly.

This fight he cannot win –

A tired man they see no longer cares.

He’s battled constantly—‘battled’ here is excellently chosen over ‘battles’ which would imply that the character is the one doing the fighting. And as is often the case when confronting a system, one does not so much battle as one is battled by the adherents of the status quo.

Defeat comes swiftly with the repercussions: ‘This fight he cannot win; a tired man they see no longer cares’. This line is particularly haunting to me as I’ve seen this defeat in my own father. This was a reverse sort of paternal inspiration to me as I saw what I never want to be, as opposed to what I would want to emulate.

The old man then prepares

To die regretfully –

That old man here is me.

The first sentence is one of pure defeat. Whereas previous verses alluded to an ongoing reformation imposed on the character by the system, his ongoing struggles against its rules of conformity, the prophetic prediction of eventual defeat by the system, in this verse it is clear that the old man came off worse from the collision—his will never satisfied in his life.

And revelation: ‘That old man here is me.’ Nowhere prior in the song do we get a clear indication that the song is being sung in first person (from the character’s perspective). The choruses allude to it, but as song lyrics usually dispense with academic precision, it’s not possible to say if the singer is quoting the character or if it’s the character doing the lamentation in first person.

What I've felt,

What I've known

Never shined through in what I've shown.

Never be.

Never see.

Won't see what might have been.

What I've felt,

What I've known

Never shined through in what I've shown.

Never free.

Never me.

So I dub thee unforgiven.

[Solo]

What I've felt,

What I've known

Never shined through in what I've shown.

Never be.

Never see.

Won't see what might have been.

What I've felt,

What I've known

Never shined through in what I've shown.

Never free.

Never me.

So I dub thee unforgiven.

Never free.

Never me.

So I dub thee unforgiven.

You labelled me,

I'll label you.

So I dub thee unforgiven.

Never free.

Never me.

So I dub thee unforgiven.

You labelled me,

I'll label you.

So I dub thee unforgiven.

Never free.

Never me.

So I dub thee unforgiven.

Lamentation, the solo (the soul of the song essentially) and more variations of lamentation follow in the closing choruses of the song. There is also the introduction of the new revealing line ‘So I dub thee unforgiven,’ which shows his hatred for the system and those who prevented him from living free and without conformity. He cannot forgive them and his regret is endless for he never was free, never will be, and never will see what might have been.

I find this song from Metallica a great way to motivate myself when burnout overcomes me. So much for metal being the devil’s music. There is more truth and wisdom and warning in this song than there is in much of religion, and what a pity most will not heed its warning.

Evidently this is a song is a warning and a prophecy for the young (if they listen) and a lamentation of solidarity for the old who have reached the final stages of their life, knowing that none of their works show anything of who they were; knowing that the system chew them, swallowed them, and defecated them when it had sucked all it could out of them.

Powerful stuff indeed, especially when one reaches the reflective depths of drunkenness.

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