Mark: Last week we listened to some surprisingly very fun versions of “Holier Than Thou”, and I’m pretty worried that the good ones from last week are as good as this collection is going to get. Today we’re coving “The Unforgiven” and I’m not going to lie, I’m fucking dreading it.
This is a straight-up lame song even when Metallica do it, as far as I remember. And it’s a ballad, so probably none of these covers are going to be fun punk rock or anything. Oof, this is probably going to be rough. Jay?
Jay: You know, if I’m being perfectly honest, I actually don’t mind “The Unforgiven”! It has a sense of melody that I like, and the verses were always interesting to me. Once again, I think its lyrics have a terrible punchline to them (“I was singing about myself all along, you dopes!”). Funny that two of the first four songs on this record go for that same “gotcha!” moment in their lyrics. Anyway, I don’t hate this song even if I have heard it probably every shopping mall I visited in the 1990s. Just like Yogen Früz, there’s a time and place for it. Let’s check it out!
Cage The Elephant – “The Unforgiven”
Mark: Hahaha. I already so simultaneously bored and irritated.
The breathy vocals and sexy/funky lurch that they’ve given this cover aren’t working for me at all. The only thing that I find interesting about this cover is the warbling slide guitar (?) floating around during the chorus.
This guitarist really worked on performing a note-for-note perfect reproduction of the guitar solo, so props to them for that, I guess? I don’t really understand the logic behind taking a song that isn’t rocking and taking it in an even less rocking direction, but what do I know?
Jay: Wow this is a truly a terrible start. This is a famous band, isn’t it? I’ve seen the name before. Wow, the chorused guitars make it even worse. Wow, this is bad! Vocals are awful, and the guitar doesn’t even sound that particularly well played. Truly awful.
Have you ever been exposed to that video of the elephant dying via electrocution? (Apparently it was a capital punishment for the elephant murdering a bunch of dudes!?!?!) Anyway, it should say something that I thought of that dying elephant while I listened to this Elephant.
Vishal Dadlani, Divine, Shor Police – “The Unforgiven”
Mark: This video looks like the opening to a new HBO series. And the music fits that better than it ought to. This vocalist is really settling into what he’s doing, whatever that is. Haha, rap section. You know what? Points for the rap section. It is way more interesting than the other parts.
This version is slightly more dynamic than the Cage The Elephant version, but still mostly a drag. Bonus points for:
- Hilariously Chris Cornell-sounding back half.
- Key change
- Being almost two minutes shorter than the Cage The Elephant version
Jay: Immediately starts out better than that last elephantine plop. Hahahahahahah, but what are these vocals? Some good sounds, and also a ton of really terrible sample choices on the drums. But really, the most egregious member of this collaboration is the singer, who is doing an impression of… I don’t know, an extremely emotional, extremely manly, man? I will say that the introduction of the rap adds something fresh, but the sounds—cornball strings, fake-real drums, this absurd singing, a bloody key change!—makes this very tedious. I feel like I must be missing something essential to understand who this song is for, or in what way it possibly makes sense.
Diet Cig – “The Unforgiven”
Mark: Nice enough keys and electronics off the top. I’m not stuck on the overall tone of this woman’s voice, but I think it’s interesting that they’ve basically rewritten the vocal melodies and chord progressions. Bold choice!
Some good drum work, decently propulsive rhythm guitar work and the overall novelty of this song’s restructuring made me enjoy this a lot more than the other two we’ve heard so far.
Jay: A promising start, but then I’m a sucker for synths. Honestly, this is really working for me so far. The vocals are pretty rough, like the singer doesn’t actually know the melody. Once this becomes a pop rock song, it’s really not for me, but compared to the first two spins, this is an improvement. Still, as a cover that is supposed to simultaneously evoke the original while also approaching it from a unique perspective, I think this is largely a failure.
I wish the band Failure did a cover of one of these songs. Failure would do a more interesting job than these.
Grade: C (Mark), C- (Jay)
Flatbush Zombies, DJ Scratch – “The Unforgiven”
Mark: Ooooh, they’re just sampling Papa Het and making his vocal take dance sexy.
Honestly, anything that makes this song sound less than itself is good by me. The hip hop verse is fine, and the production is – as I keep saying – more interesting to me than this song presented in its vanilla form. Cookie monster takes the second verse, which is a welcome addition.
I’m not sure that I would call this good, but it’s sort of amusing. Also, that isolated lead vocal track is hilarious. Just chewing the lyrical scenery, Het.
This is… yeah.
Jay: This is the original horn, right? Ah, I see, this is a remix. Man, I’m having a hard time listening to this slowed down Het. It cranks up the absurdity of the song. This verse clearly has nothing to do with the original (“I was 16, hiding condoms in my house”), but the backbeat production is OK. But really, I think this whole thing feels lazy. The fact that there’s no additional vocal contribution to these extremely slow choruses, that there’s no strong link between the MC section… Oh wait, this second MC verse is alright. Hah. Yeah, this version is not for me.
Ha*Ash – “The Unforgiven”
Mark: A straightforward folk/country version of this song makes a lot of sense, and this is about as well-executed as one could hope, I guess. This is the kind of thing that Metallica were aping in the first place with this godawful song.
Nice touch with the Spanish language passage and the trumpets are great.
This is fine. I hope I never hear it again.
Jay: This starts in a really interesting, sparse, and pretty place. I like this guitar work so far. The vocals aren’t my favourite, but at least it feels like the liberties taken in the original melody make sense, and show a reverence for the original. Some nice “oohs”. The full-band section really isn’t for me, though the vocal performances are super strong. There’s just too much high-production gloss for my tastes. And Mark’s right, the Spanish surprise is a great change-up! Actually, all throughout this collection of covers, it’s clear that Metallica is beloved all across the world, not just in English-speaking North America. I appreciate that.
José Madero – “The Unforgiven”
Jay: After this many Unforgivens, I’m not sure I’m ready for another Unforgiven that starts with the standard lines. Although I’ll admit that the production values are interesting, from the buzzy industrial sounds to the piano two octaves up from where you might expect it.
But these vocals are way way too much. They feel like they’d be well suited to introducing a WWE wrestler as they entered the squared circle to battle George the Animal Steele. (Is that too deep a cut?) Then once the song really gets going, the mix is so odd, with the claps so far in the background that they sound like George the Animal Steele chewing on the turnbuckles from a great distance. (I’m going with it.)
This is largely unoriginal in its approach and sound. I know I jumped my turn, but Mark, what do you think of it?
Mark: This is the funniest one so far. 80s action movie 2nd act crisis montage music. Hero is going to turn it all around in the 3rd act, but it’s going to take this fuckin’ badass song to help them achieve it.
I hate this, Jay. I am totally flummoxed that you are into this song. Hahaha.
I will say, this is the first one (in this whole series of listening to Metallica covers) that I just turned off halfway through instead of listening to the end.
Grade: C- (Jay) F (Mark)
Moses Sumney – “The Unforgiven”
Jay: OK, I’ll always take a bass solo off the top! Good start. A ripping good start, actually. Forty seconds in and it’s still all bass. And then some Jeff Buckley meets Prince in the singing. Oh, this is a great vocal delivery, again reverent to the original, but largely its own in the approach. This version is really doing it for me, from its stellar bass performance to the clear-but-not-flashy production, to the intimate vocal performance.
I think I might like it better with some drums, but if I were to go to a show and the bass player whipped this one out between tracks, I would be floored. That chord progression in the last chorus is such a beautiful addition. This is, by a healthy margin, the most interesting, original, and pleasing version of “The Unforgiven” on this list so far. But it’s still “The Unforgiven”, so maybe that makes it unforgivable for you, Mark?
Mark: This is the best one by a country mile. Truly impressive bass work, and evocative, interesting vocal approach. The arrangement in general is utterly unexpected. The choral presentation of the last chorus/outro is just wonderful.
I don’t really love this song in general (you may have noticed), but I enjoyed this quite a bit. Jay has already touched on everything that makes it great. A pleasant surprise.
Grade: A (Jay) B (Mark)
Metallica – “The Unforgiven” (Remastered)
Jay: Six and a half minutes, eh? I used to be much more tolerant of long pop songs. But it’s clear why, in the first thirty seconds, this song is considered a classic. Fantastic sounds, anthemic melody, a love of the modern (well, 1990s modern) and the classics (whom they’d later cover). And then when the metal section kicks in, but still maintaining that strong sense of melody and chord progression? Killer. The fact that the choruses went down in their dynamics also shouldn’t be overlooked, since so much of the 90s was about making the refrains as loud and distorted as possible.
There is a lot of love put into the making of this song, a lot of love for all its influences both heavy and classic rock. The solo sound, just a little bit of room echo, makes it such a unique sound even in 2021. The Mets are clearly in love with their own song, hence the long run time and many elaborate sections and guitar sounds; even in the last chorus, they’re introducing yet another guitar sound, some twelve-string acoustic, it sounds like. But you know what? I think they earn it. And honestly, I think Hetfield pulls out an absolutely awesome vocal take. I can’t believe I’m going to bat for Het, but, like Yogen Früz, there’s a time and place for it.
Mark: Look, I don’t like it, but this song is still clearly best handled by its originators. The production is tight and punchy, and at least manages to kind of rock, for a ballad. It is an amazing-sounding take on a song that makes my skin crawl a bit. Alright? Are you happy?
I can’t help but think that out of all of the tunes on on The Black Album, this one most clearly heralds the arrival of the dismal mid-to-late 90s output that this band had in store. It drags as badly as “Until It Sleeps” and it even got a fucking sequel. A SEQUEL.
I think this tune is worse than “Nothing Else Matters” which seems like a much more honest ballad than this one, which feels more like a trumped-up pastiche. I’m probably wrong. People probably love this song. But hey, this is me writing. Bad takes are my love language.
Grade: A (Jay) C (Mark)
Next installment: “Wherever I May Roam” – covered by J Balvin, Chase & Status, BackRoad Gee, The Neptunes, and Jon Pardi.