Bluff til they stopped the game
To be honest I never really planned on listening to Metric ever again. I mean, what was the point? How could they ever do better than “Gimme Sympathy,” one of the finest pop songs anyone has produced in the modern age? For that matter how could they create an album better than Fantasies, a self-actualized masterwork crystallizing the elements that had occasionally led to some uncomfortable divisions on previous records? You talk about high water marks, that album might as well be called Katrina. Self-released by the band, it went on to sell well over a million singles and nearly 500,000 albums worldwide. That’s pretty huge. They’re apparently big in America now too, touring the states before setting out for Canada. They had significant contributions to the soundtracks for Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, one of the Twilight movies, and David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. Neat!
It looks like Synthetica will be following suit too. The company the band started to handle their releases has expanded to handle an album that seems to have a lot of promise. Lead single “Youth Without Youth” debuted at #1 on the alternative section of the “Canadian Radio Chart” and then managed to stay there a record 16 weeks. It also took the top spot for a few weeks on the college radio charts, which is a little more expected.
I’ve been listening to Metric since the start, having jumped on Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? from its initial release. It got the attention it did for a reason, bringing a dancey edge to a propulsive indie rock sound and imbuing it with a cynical political edge tailor-made for the post-invasion Bush presidency era. The follow-up, Live It Out, was a mixed affair that birthed some of their hugest rock anthems and most introspective moments. Their “lost” album Grow Up And Blow Away revealed the promise they displayed in their nascent years (though it was largely unmemorable), setting the table for the tour de force that was Fantasies.
There’s an interesting inversion between that album and Synthetica. While the artwork on Fantasies was surrounded by darkness the album’s overall message titled towards optimism, something that hasn’t happened often on their records. Now the art is bathed in brightness, a window to mountainous peaks in the distance suggesting new heights may be imminent. The photo is inverted, however, perhaps telling us the band is looking to turn a decade’s worth of expectation on its head.
An argument could be made as to whether or not they succeed. After refining and growing their sound for roughly ten years a Metric song is more or less instantly identifiable; it’s in the gradual synth build-up that begins “Artificial Nocturne,” in the first words front-woman Emily Haines utters on the record: “I’m just as fucked up as they say” (a claim that will no doubt play well with their new Twilight fans, if my understanding of the book’s target demographic holds true). “Youth Without Youth” is reminiscent of some of their stompier, more anthemic numbers, apparently building off the infamous Gary Glitter “Rock And Roll Pt. 2″ drum beat. “Breathing Underwater” sounds like a Fantasies leftover but in a very good way, thanks to its heady mix of synth sounds and guitar combined with Haines’ soaring vocals.
The latter is a good example of the pervading temperament of Synthetica: introspection. While earlier albums saw Haines take a more political bent she’s been progressing further inward. At the opening she places herself and whoever she’s addressing in a symbiotic relationship (“I’m the blade, you’re the knife. I’m the wind, you’re the kite.”), continuing on, “Is this my life or am I breathing under water?” She could be referring to her place in the band, considering she later mentions, “They were right when they said you should never meet your heroes,” (incidentally and interestingly Lou Reed appears on a song towards the end of the record for some reason; not reading into that at all). Haines’ own apathy becomes the target on the next track, singing, “Thought I made a stand, only made a scene…Have I ever really helped anybody but myself, to believe in the power of songs, to believe in the power of girls?…The point we’re making is gone.” It seems like there might be a small bit of regret for Haines in how she has presented herself in the band or how others may have perceived her words. Or maybe not; immediately after comes “Lost Kitten” with its rhythmic hand claps and Haines’ coquettish vocals reaching into her upper register, expunging a possibly-sarcastic tale of devotion bordering on dependance. If its the real thing it’s kind of a mature moment for the one-time sexpot that broke hearts all over their first two albums. If it isn’t, if it’s meant to be ironic, then it gets a little closer to the kind of feminist statement you might expect Haines to make. I guess that’s up for us to guess and her to know for sure.
Really though, you could make the argument that that’s the entire point behind the whole album. When Haines claims in an open letter to fans that this record is the culmination of everything they’ve done before it sounds like it, at least from a musical standpoint. Like their pals in Stars they’ve reached a functional apex where their various diversions have come together to form a really cohesive and definitive sound, something less aggressive than, say, “Monster Hospital” but more aggressive than, obviously, “The Police And The Private.” But it’s all of it, to a note, incredibly hooky and infectious. But they got there in a really self-serving way that suggests Metric are really just in it for themselves anyway (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In Haines’ aforementioned statement she explains that Sythetica is meant to call into question people’s inability to see the difference between the real thing and a manufacured version of it; that’s embodied on the record, for example, in the effort the group made to run a classic 60s organ through a distortion pedal to make it sound like a synth. It’s something 99% of listeners — hell, maybe even 100% — would never pick up on. So what’s the point? Obviously they’re doing it for themselves and only themselves.
Still, I think in the end that’s what makes the record so comprehensive and fluid: Metric continues to create, package, and sell music on their own terms. They’ve found their niche and they’re just working to refine the details and craft their own perfect vision of what they’re capable of. When you can have success doing that why would you ever bother doing it any other way?