...And Justice for All is the logical conclusion of Metallica's 80's sound, the album where studio Metallica reached the edge of what they would be able to recreate during a live performance. Their subsequent retreat from this influential 80's sound makes a lot of sense in retrospect; after this ambitious set, Metallica had nothing more to accomplish in the realm of thrash. ...And Justice may be an artistic dead end, but it's a dead end that finds Metallica at its most epic, complex, poetic, progressive, claustrophobic, political, and difficult. Unfortunately, it also suffers from horrible "recorded in a can" production, denying this album masterpiece status, as well as foreshadowing the Bob Rock era of overproduction. Cliff Burton is not as sorely missed as one would suppose, because the bass is nearly inaudible by Metallica standards.
The relentlessly reinforced theme is society in decline. No signs of hope are permitted to squeeze through the soul-crushing lyrics: "The shortest straw has been pulled for you", "You've clipped my wings before I learned to fly". Like Orwell's 1984, here defeat is utterly total, and humanity has not even the capability to cling to its spirit and dignity amongst the rubble.
"Blackened" is about as amazing as Metallica intros come. Swirling distorted guitars speak a heartfelt opening cry before Ulrich's drums kick in and get things moving. By the end of the song, the album is already moving with such fury that the lyrical climax "See our mother put to death! See our mother die!" somehow seems terrifying instead of pretentious, and introduces a tearful guitar solo. This is Metallica's modus operandi on their fourth proper album: force them to witness the tragedy of the world.
"One", of course, is the terrifying centerpiece. This semi-ballad, told through the eyes of a young man who has lost arms, legs, sight, hearing, and speech to a landmine, powerfully encapsulates the hopeless dread which permeates the album. Few refrains in modern popular music can express the same anguish as Hetfield's "Hold my breath as I wish for death... Oh Please God, WAKE ME!" As the gentle melodies transform into machine-gun metal at the song's zenith, the listener possessing even a shred of emotion is forced to give into the narrator's pain. This is Hell on Earth, a living death.
"To Live Is To Die" is another highlight, a mostly instrumental track, beginning with a sad, shimmering, acoustic flourish, quickly displaced by jackhammer drums and a monster riff. There is then a beautiful and triumphant melodic interlude, holding man's accomplishments to the sky, before the deadly riff returns with twice as much meance. Hetfield's thesis (taken from a poem written by the late Burton) is presented here, in spoken word form, as the riff plods on. "When a man lies, he murders some part of the world. These are the pale deaths which men miscall their lives."
While not as consistent or revolutionary as Master of Puppets, the evolutionary ...And Justice for All reached artistic and technical levels unmatched in thrash before or after, and neared only by the political fury of early 90's Sepultura. Their biggest statement being made, Metallica would move on to the mainstream.