It was only recently that Metallica, for the first time, looked old to me.
I was watching the metal icons perform some songs at a music festival this summer in Central Park. Their set was short, but they hit all the anthems: "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Master of Puppets," "Enter Sandman," etc.
I don't know why Metallica looked so old, playing this music it's played more than a thousand times in its 35 years. Maybe it was the puffy bags under singer James Hetfield's eyes, the gray curls curtaining Kirk Hammett's face. Maybe it was the summer sun floodlighting these perfectly normal signs of being in your 50s.
Or maybe it was the sea of fresh-faced teens and 20-somethings in the crowd — and the way they responded to this music that's older than they are, this music popularized through media they've scarcely used, this heavy metal music. And they responded, blithely but surely, the way Metallica audiences always have: "Time marches on!" "Master!" "Enter night!" etc.
Yeah, it was definitely that.
Metallica crowds usually meet the band's performances with fiery passion for its music. This was different. In Central Park, the crowd met the band's performance with passing familiarity with its music, and nothing more. But that was still something.
I couldn't help remembering that festival set as I listened to Metallica's 10th album, "Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct." If the set located the band's place in popular culture in 2016, "Hardwired" finds the band leaning into that place with all of its old man strength.
Consciously or not, the new double album flows like a microcosm of Metallica's career. The title track leads it off with the hardcore punk rhythms of debut "Kill 'Em All" as Hetfield snarls "We're so fucked!" with just enough conviction — and supporting real-world evidence — to stop you from cackling.
Hetfield's vocals shine throughout the release. His lyrics avoid the angsty word salad of 2008's "Death Magnetic," and his higher notes avoid the creaky wails of 2003's "St. Anger." Most of "Hardwired's" cringe, in fact, is contained to its PhotoShop rage monster cover art and silly song titles.
Following "Hardwired," and faintly recalling the more tuneful thrash of "Ride the Lightning" and "Master of Puppets," are "Atlas, Rise!" and "Moth Into Flame."
With his nimble work on the former and molten solo on the latter, Hammett begins establishing his guitar work on the album as his best in decades. Also superlative is Lars Ulrich, if only because his drums have fully shaken off the tinny snare sound that ruined "St. Anger" and refused to flush in "Death Magnetic."
The resemblance between "Hardwired's" song flow and Metallica's own sonic evolution isn't 1:1, though. "Atlas" and "Moth" bookend "Now That We're Dead," a mawkish mid-tempo metal love song that feels borne of the years between 1991's "Metallica" and 1996's "Load."
Then, after "Moth," the band takes a complete left turn with the mainstream doom metal of "Dream No More" and, to a lesser extent, "Halo on Fire." Slow, ominous and ably screeched by Hetfield, the one-two sounds as much like a tribute to Mastodon as anything in Metallica's own catalogue.
When disc two dives into the boring grooves of the "Load" and "Reload" days, bassist Robert Trujillo gets a rare spotlight for a role famously diminished by the band after member Cliff Burton died. But even his virtuosic prowess can't save "Confusion" and the confoundingly named "ManUNkind."
If the self-reference of "Hardwired's" song flow wasn't Metallica's intention, that of its lyrics certainly is. Hetfield calls on Cthulhu to awaken in "Dream No More," asks "Am I Savage?" instead of "Evil?" and revisits the battlefield scars of "One" in "Confusion." At least the band didn't title it "ConfusONE," I guess.
Just when disc two looks like it'll limp to the finish, Metallica leaves one last reminder how ferociously it can rock. Unlike the similarly determined "Death Magnetic," though, closer "Spit out the Bone" does the job as forcefully as anything the band has recorded since 1988's "... And Justice For All," with cyclone riffs and "Terminator"-esque lyrics that echo Hetfield's despondence in "Hardwired."
With "Hardwired," as with all double albums, it's tempting to distill the track list down to a single album. (For the record, I'd go: "Hardwired," "Atlas," "Moth," "Dream," the competent "Here Comes Revenge" and "Bone," adding "Halo on Fire" and "Confusion" if I absolutely have to make it eight.)
Doing that, however, would strip Metallica's latest of maybe its most endearing quality: Encompassing the peaks and valleys of the band's musical progression over the course of the career. In this way, "Hardwired" enshrines the aging band, warts and all, for both new audiences and longtime worshipers. It's Metallica in 2016, and forever more.
LISTEN: Metallica, "Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct"