Album Review: Metric, Synthetica
Metric, Synthetica — Mom & Pop / Metric Music International (2012)
Last week, Apple held its annual Worldwide Developers Conference. During the conference, the company announced it's newest Macbook Pro, which features, among other things, a 2880 x 1800 pixel screen (hint: that's a lot of pixels). For the sake of contrast, back in 2009 — the year that Metric's last album, Fantasies, came out — Steve Jobs was still the CEO, the company was a year away from releasing the iPad, and its then-current iPhone was the 3GS. In other words, a lot has happened since then.
Four years later, the band is back with their fifth effort, Synthetica, an album that, as its title would suggest, is ostensibly about technology and our constantly changing relationship to it. With such obvious references to art and progress, it's irresistible to post the question as to whether Synthetica is the iPhone 4S to Fantasies' iPhone 3GS. As it turns out, that's a tough one to answer.
The first thing worth noting is that if you're not already a fan of Metric, then this album is unlikely to change your mind about the band. Established fans, on the other hand, will find that putting in a bit of work will pay dividends with this LP. Even more so than its predecessor, it takes several listens before Synthetica begins to reveal its strengths — a characteristic that underscores the degree to which Metric's sound has continued to evolve.
Synthetica begins with Emily Haines' narrator admitting, "I'm just as fucked up as they say / I can't fake the daytime." Such an admission, even if it's only coming from one of Haines' narrators, seems to promise much dramatic force. Unfortunately, after an appropriate buildup, the song always seems one epic breakdown away from delivering on Haines's opening lyrical salvo.
Thankfully, the tone and quality of the album changes with "Speed the Collapse" and "Lost Kitten." Both songs see the band use an old Metric trope — the incongruous juxtaposition of dark subject matter with a decidedly pop sensibility on the musical end of things. On "Lost Kitten," for instance, Haines uses her most precious voice and phrasing to deliver a song that seems to describe a father's chance meeting with a prostitute that may or may not be his long lost daughter. "I was looking for a hooker when I found you," and "You'll never be mine, ah, but you've got my eyes." Haines has visited this material before — on Hustle Rose, for instance — but this is both a more clever and harrowing take on the subject.
With "The Wanderlust," Metric shows off its pop cachet as Lou Reed joins Haines for a duet. The resulting song isn't Lulu bad, but it never approaches the brilliance of "Some Kind of Nature." In that sense, "The Wanderlust" is emblematic of the album as a whole.
There's a lot of good ideas on Synthetica and Haines has penned some of her most thoughtful lyrics, but the song, like much of the album, is bogged down by some ineffectual instrumentation and production choices. On repeated listenings, I continually questioned the processing applied to Haines' voice, which only seems to expose her limited range. It's one of those choices that sheds unwanted light on something that I hadn't taken much account of before, but that's now become impossible to ignore.
So, to return to the initial question: does Synthetica represent a step forward for Metric? Well, unlike technological progress, creative evolution is rarely linear in nature. There's steps forward, back, and sideways — but it's exactly that fact that makes even the perceived failures compelling. So, while I would say that Synthetica doesn't quite match the quality of its predecessor, there's definitely a lot here that's worth listening to.
While Haines continues to cultivate a similar lyrical persona, the chief themes with which she's concerned — namely, the struggle for authenticity and the experience of nostalgia — are explored with more nuance here. And, despite the glossy production, underneath it all, it's clear the band is unafraid to venture into new territory.
Second photo by Dylan Leeder