Let it never be said that I’m a man who can’t admit his own mistakes. Last week it was the authorship of “Slave Girl.” This week, it’s the best Metallica album.

A couple years ago I made the bold claim that Metallica only made one truly great record. And while I stand by the tangential claim — that their next three efforts aren’t as good as people seem to think — I’d like to revise my view on one album in particular.

I’m speaking of Load, an album that marked a new direction for the band. Everyone remembers the haircuts and freshly hired wardrobe consultants. Only your NASCAR-obsessed cousin remembers this as the album when Metallica learned how to play rock and roll again.

Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets were stiff records. Great for lifting weights, not so great for partying. …And Justice For All saw the band exchange spooky Cthulhu references for embarrassing attempts at “seriousness.” Their self-titled effort, the so-called “Black Album,” was a step in the right direction, but was too firmly rooted in their past to be any good.

And then Load kicked the doors down. Gone were the tired thrash tropes that had brought the band diminishing returns since their debut. Here was a fresh take on Skynyrd-tinged boogie rock for the 1990s.

Load arrived at a time when everything had to be “extreme.” “Even water has caffeine,” to quote a Doublemint gum ad of the era. And so, Metallica brought a grittiness to Southern rock that no one else (except maybe fellow yank Zakk Wylde) could possibly imagine. Teenage heshers from sea to shining sea were enraged, but a slightly older bar crowd and a slightly younger mall crowd were sold: This was the new sound of rock & roll. If “Stone Cold” Steve Austin were a record, he would be Load.

“Ain’t My Bitch” is everything an opening track should be: energetic, fierce and memorable. “2×4” is a (forgive the unintentional pun) lumbering track, the anger of the first song fading into a more methodical revenge plot. If “Ain't My Bitch” is the ranting of road rage, “2×4” is the quiet threat of a man who means every word.

“The House That Jack Built” is a spooky track, no less so because of its play on a children’s book title. “Until It Sleeps” is downright heartbreaking, a tale of James Hetfield’s mother slowly dying of cancer, perhaps the most personal and adult topic the band had tackled yet.

“Hero of the Day” is an unsung pop gem. The shimmering verse gives way easily to one of the heavier choruses to ever appear on rock radio.

But perhaps the most stunning accomplishment of the record is its aforementioned rehabilitation of Southern rock. Long maligned as an irrelevant, bloated idiom fit only for the Joe Dirt set, Metallica had anyone with a set of ears listening a little closer to Skynyrd, the Allmans and even also-rans like Molly Hatchet and .38 Special.

A Dixie-fried sensibility pervades the album, but is most noticeable on “Poor Twisted Me” and my personal favorite track, “Ronnie,” which is a rather flippant yarn about a school shooter. The loose, bluesy feel is still there, but with a crunching muscularity that doubtless had the cognoscenti slapping their foreheads and exclaiming “Of course!” 

While the record moved units (680,000 in the first week, making it the fastest-selling album of 1996), it didn’t exactly win Metallica high praise. People were confused by the new direction, not least of all the band’s existing fan base. Rock critics were by and large nonplussed and continue to be so. When people go back and look at Metallica’s catalog as a whole, Load isn’t typically ranked at the top of the list. Rather, the general consensus seems to be that they peaked early and got worse and worse with each subsequent album, culminating in the “Loutallica” fiasco.

Well, I loved Lulu and I love Load. Don’t look for either of them on any “Best Albums of All Time as Ranked by the Noodle-Armed Social Parasites of Rock Journalism.” But the next time you’re trying to see just how fast you can get your classic muscle car to run on a straight stretch of desert highway, pop in a CD copy of Load and wonder how the hell it took you so long to appreciate this unsung masterpiece. 

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