Metallica’s “The Unforgiven III” is really “No Leaf Clover II”


In 1999, my senior year in high school, the mighty Metallica were probably at the precipice of their popularity.  The poseur fans checked out after Load and Reload, and were quickly replaced by a new breed of teenage fans introduced to the band through Enter Sandman.  Metallica did put on one of the coolest concerts ever withe San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by the late Micheal Kamen.  Called S&M (Symphony and Metallica), it was heralded by the single No Leaf Clover, one of two songs made just for the concert.  It was a rather brilliant song, brutal and poetic, and kept Metallica’s new trend of more poetic lyrics.

I’m assuming you’ve heard it at least a couple times.  But if it’s been a while have a listen and refresh yourself.

Many song lyrics are open to interpretation, but I feel No Leaf Clover is a rather simple story of a young man out to seek a fortune through a get rich quick scheme of some sort.  Lost in his own head, filled with dreams of how great life is without the age, wisdom, and practicality to handle the situation he goes through the day without heeding the warning signs.

And it feels right this day
On his crash course with the big time
Pays no mind to the distant thunder
New day fills his head with wonder, boy!

Says “It feels right this time!”
Turned around and found the white line
“Good day to be alive sir!
Good day to be alive”, he said.

Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel
Was just a freight train coming your way…..

He is even warned by his elders that he is heading down a bad path.

“Sucker for that quick reward, boy
Sucker for that quick reward”, they say.

The lyrics and the music ebb and flow between beauty and brutality, perfectly capturing the highs and lows of the young man’s dilemma.  It’s a very painful learning experience he has to go through, and just like any struggle in life, there are a wide range of conflicting emotions.  Sometimes at our lowest points in careless living we feel the highest due to our short-sightedness, and the music echoes that sentiment.  Unforgiven III explores that theme lyrically.

In 2008, Metallica released the album Death Magnentic which is a return to form to the old metal version of Metallica.  The Unforgiven III is one of the last tracks on the album, and I’ve seen many people trash the song.  These are also the same type of people who hate on Load and Reload, for what it’s worth.   The first Unforgiven dealt with a man blaming all of his life’s regrets on his upbringing and society.  The second was a murder ballad about a man killing his lover.    Unlike the previous two songs in the Unforgiven trilogy this one has it’s own melody and veers off unto it’s own course, making it stand out completely.  The only links to it has to it’s roots is it’s melody and talk about unforgiveness, however, this time the character realizes it’s all his fault.  Also, the term “unforgiven” is never used once.

Much like No Leaf Clover, it’s about a person’s empty headed quest to achieve things in life that lead to his ruination and estrangement from others, and runs away from everything in the search.

How could he know this new dawns light would change his life forever?
Set sail to sea, but pulled off course by the light of golden treasure

The character, however, isn’t as cocky or full of life as in No Leaf Clover.

Was he the one causing pain with his careless dreaming?

Been afraid, always afraid, of the things he’s feeling
He could just be gone.  He would just sail on.
He’ll just sail on…..

How can I be lost if I’ve got nowhere to go?
Search for seas of gold, how come it’s got so cold?
How can I be lost?  In remembrance I relieve
And how can I blame you, when it’s me I can’t forgive?

The song then express lyrically the agony and the ecstasy of the wild life that No Leaf Clover kind of touched on.

These days drift on inside a fog, it’s thick and suffocating
His sinking life, outside it’s hell, inside intoxicating
He’s run aground like his life, WATER MUCH TOO SHALLOW
Slipping fast, down with his ship, fading into shadows
Now a castaway. They’ve all gone away. 
They’ve gone away….

No Leaf Clover had a freight train posing as a beacon of hope, The Unforgiven III has a sea of gold tempting it’s sailor into the maelstrom.

I’ve read comments from people saying they have no clue what this song is about or why it’s The Unforgiven III.  It’s pretty damn self-evident what it’s about but I can see why people are upset about the song title.  I don’t mind it, but I think it’s misleading given the thematic content and it’s similarity to No Leaf Clover.  I’ve felt this way for a few years now, but never really made the case for it.  I felt it was high time to do so.

What say you?


1 Comment

  1. I have never even though of that all these years. As a long time, die hard fan of the band, this piece you just wrote was brilliant. You honestly should submit it somewhere.

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