The Devastating Brilliance Of ‘All Within My Hands’

People who know my musical tastes well enough know at this point that i consider Metallica’s St. Anger to be one of my top ten favorite albums of all time; in fact, i made a documentary charting my love for it. Album love aside, i was given the challenge of naming exactly why i consider ‘All Within My Hands’ to be Metallica’s greatest album closer, as well as one of their most brilliant, devastatingly beautiful songs.

i want to do my best to avoid the oft-cliched superlatives; i also want to be clear that i recognize that the more recent reworkings of the song are the ones preferred. While i love those versions just as much as their primary source, those versions are ruminations on a particular place in time. Those versions are performed by a set of people who have been the participants in a long-term healing process. The original, album version (which tends to be just as despised as ‘Invisible Kid’ and ‘Purify’ respectfully) was born out of uncertainty.

It was born out of a new revelation: that those who have been harmed have the ability to cause much more harm.

The song comes immediately after ‘Purify’ (my favorite song on St. Anger), a song which succinctly describes the process of the breaking down and rebuilding of a therapy process. In the midst of that process came the realization that transgressions were performed, whether purposefully or not. As a person who has had a traumatic childhood myself, there are boundaries i unknowingly crossed, while attempting to seek connection with people. It’s extremely difficult to hear that you’ve caused harm when that was never your intent. ‘All Within My Hands’ is the gradual process of someone breaking down, as they attempt to make sense of what they’ve done.

One minute and three seconds pass, before James Hetfield softly (for this song) utters the first lyrics, which is also the title of the song. He then proceeds to describe the process of manipulation that occurs, resulting in the breaking of relationship bridges.

All within my hands
Squeeze it in, crush it down
All within my hands
Hold it dear, hold it suffocate

The lyrics (which send a clear nod to the strained relationship between the band and bassist Jason Newsted, resulting in his departure) evoke a certain simultaneous self-awareness and resignation- ‘Is this really what I have done? I suppose I have.’ Hetfield, in an interview with David Fricke, described how Newsted was an “easy target,” and that the “grief and sadness” (in relation to bassist Cliff Burton’s passing) “got directed at him.” In the film Some Kind Of Monster (documenting both the creation of St. Anger as well as a partial process of therapy) he leans more into the lyrics, straight up stating that he had a tendency to alienate the people he loved and cared about by suffocating them, based on his fear of rejection. He spoke about how he didn’t want Jason to love anything more than Metallica. If you love someone though, the best thing to do is acknowledge their humanity, and understand that you cannot cage a bird who wants to fly.

By the time you get to the second verse, he is, voice now raised, giving you a warning to “beware”:

Love to death, smack you ’round and ’round

This is one of the most honest, vulnerable and self-critical portrayals of someone struggling with control issues and abusive tendencies i have ever seen or heard. The narrator experiences the whole spectrum: resignation/realization, self-doubt, despondency, resistance, impatience and spitefulness.

Love is control
I’ll die if I let go

(Hurry up and) Hate me now

I will only let you breathe
My air that you receive
Then we’ll see if I let you love me

i want to highlight the final portion of the song… The oft-lambasted ‘Kill Kill Kill’ portion. The chant may seem a bit over-the-top, adding on to its already off-kilter time signatures; but it’s honestly what seals this song as a perfect, cathartic bookend to a particular narrative. We should have seen it coming with that final declaration of love as control, preceded by a anguished wail. People lament Hetfield’s imperfect singing here (and throughout the album), but St. Anger (and ‘All Within My Hands’ in particular) is the sound of someone expelling emotional demons.

The intensity and vulnerability of this segment on the album have yet to be recreated, and i doubt if it ever will. Lars Ulrich starts off with a simple open hi-hat, then comes in with a simultaneous hi-hat/snare combination, setting the path for Hetfield to enter. The first three kills (out of 38) start out clean. The fourth one is transitional, and the fifth has a lightweight guttural quality, as Lars has now introduced double bass. The next set falls a bit deeper into the guttural, moving into a cracked voice scream, back into an even deeper guttural (as if he snapped himself back into ‘control stage’), into a brief bark… before he cries out again, into a sea of dissonance.

It’s a very real, uncomfortable portrayal of the constant theme in Metallica’s music: the rebirth which occurs after a very significant death. While death indeed is not the end, the process is incredibly painful.

Many people opine that St. Anger takes cues from nu metal, which was fairly popular at the time of the album’s release. i don’t have much familiarity with nu metal as a genre, so in listening to the album (and in particular this song), more than anything i hear tinges and influences of the slew of bands in the 90s who were produced by Steve Albini: bands like Slint, The Jesus Lizard, or even his own works (like Shellac). For a band to go from razor-sharp riffs to releasing what essentially sounds like an indie record (with Bob Rock, one of the greatest producers no less) proves to me that this was done for their survival- not only as a band, but as people. They could have scrapped what they had altogether and released a ‘better’ set of songs after they were in a better mental space to. But they didn’t. And i am grateful for that.

i am grateful for this document of a particular human experience, this exorcising of toxic emotions, and the realization that there really is a more humane and liberating way to deliver love.

It’s all within our hands.

About jamilah

i think about a lot of things, and sometimes i write about them.
This entry was posted in documentary, music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s