In Defense of No Leaf Clover
The much maligned S&M single really isn’t that bad, y’all.
In the opening minutes of this week’s Toilet ov Hell podcast episode, we discussed Metallica’s claim that they curate local set lists based on Spotify’s user listening data per region. This led to jokes about bad, overplayed, or otherwise maligned songs penned by, inarguably, one of the three greatest metal bands of all time. (The other two are Black Sabbath and Morbid Angel, if you were wondering). Inevitably, we joked about the trash-can snare and wah-soaked fever dream of “I Disappear” from the Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack and the cello-and-bassoon bombast of “No Leaf Clover”.
“No Leaf Clover”, for those living under a rock in 1999, was a brand new song written for Metallica’s overly ambitious live concert/double album S&M. With the help of the San Francisco Symphony the band attempted to breathe new life into primarily Load-era and Black Album song selections. The results were uneven. Slower, sparser tracks like “The Outlaw Torn” were granted a new sense of emotional heft from the orchestral accompaniment, while punchier songs like “Fuel” and “Sad But True” gained little from the addition of some finicky strings and horns. But among the hits and misses, the highlight of the entire record is “No Leaf Clover”.
Blasting open with a martial stomp of brass and percussion, “No Leaf Clover” summons visions an oppressive but imminently headbangable past. Gentle woodwinds cascade around the simple clean guitar line that leads to a heavy verse riff that acts as an extension of the introductory movement. Hetfield, for all his worst impulses of the era, manages to carry a tune in a bucket. Alternating between his gentle crooning and impassioned growls, the ensemble works within the dynamics of a late 90s rock tune to amplify the drama in a tale of a young man finding himself on the wrong side of forces well beyond his control. Be it fame or drugs, the “soothing light at the end of [his] tunnel” portends his doom with the squishening force of a loaded freight train. Furthermore, the orchestra arrangement is essential to the song; “No Leaf Clover” just wouldn’t work without the pomp of the symphony, unlike every other song on S&M. In the hundred or so times Metallica has performed it live, they’ve never been bold enough to try it without an orchestral backing track.
By comparison, “-Human”, the other new song written specifically for S&M, displayed the band’s worst knuckle-dragging rock impulses. In absence of dynamic riffs, the symphony orchestra was left to their own devices to whistle through some aimless woodwind passages while the bass section droned though mind-numbingly un-dynamic riffs.
It’s difficult to look at S&M, this bloated double live album with a world-renowned orchestra, and not see it as the machination of a group of far-too-wealthy, self-indulgent rock stars. Indeed, S&M was the last record Metallica released before James Hetfield came to grips with his substance abuse issues and subsequent stint in rehab (as documented in the incredible documentary Some Kind of Monster). When Hetfield returned the band would never be the same, surely as much a result of age and comfort as a new sense of clarity. If The Black Album or Load didn’t do it, metal fans can certainly point to S&M as the moment that Metallica had jumped the shark. But y’know what? Despite the concept being dumber than a sack of hammers, Fonzie still looked pretty cool wearing a leather jacket and flying over a goddamn shark.
Accepting that by 1999 the band was a more than a decade removed from their teenage, alcohol-soaked roots that destroyed the synapses of a planet full of thrash-loving speed demons, and knowing that the future would take the band to a trash can snare nü-metal nadir, an unlistenable art rock lark, and two albums of crusty old man attempts at reliving the past, “No Leaf Clover” may have been the last breath of genuine artistic growth that Metallica could muster before giving in to a disappointing but richly deserved legacy act. “No Leaf Clover” truly conveys a freight train coming your way.