Metric Synthetica

[Metric Music International/Mom + Pop; 2012]

Styles: the new indie rock, “Grey’s Anatomy”-core
Others: Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton, Stars, other stuff I don’t listen to anymore

I feel like I need to justify even listening to this record, let alone spending enough time with it to venture a review. That’s interesting I think. It says something about me at the very least, but also, I suspect, about this website and the kind of listener it caters to, their (your!) politics and prejudices.

My sense is that things would be different if Synthetica were a ‘purer’ kind of pop. Rowan Savage’s recent review of Saint Etienne’s latest record is a good example. Here is an album that is all about the deep pleasures of a certain kind of popular jouissance, whereby it’s precisely the sharing of the musical experience that matters most. Words and Music finds Saint Etienne both reflecting on and luxuriating in the power of pop. And we’re cool with that.

Metric? Less so. Because Metric — their sound, their look, their product endorsements — seem to embody so perfectly the twisted double-logic of the New Indie Rock: the adoption of an outsider’s perspective from safely within the inside; rebellion as the necessary gesture of a certain kind of totally sanitized rock conservatism. You know what I mean. It looks, sounds, and blogs a lot like Urban Outfitters… with over 400 retail locations worldwide and counting.

Not only do Metric embody this logic, Synthetica is actually about it. On this, their fourth official outing, we find Haines & Co™ worrying like budding Platonists about the difference between the real and the merely imitative: mimesis, reproduction, synthesis, simulacra, (in)authenticity. Look at the track names: “Artificial Nocturne,” “Youth Without Youth,” “The Void,” “Clone.” On “Dreams So Real,” the concern is that rock itself has experienced a kind of fall from grace, presumably from those halcyon days in the 1960s when rock was deeply connected with the onward march of history, when music really mattered. (Greil Marcus would be proud.) “Our parents, daughters, and sons believed in the power of songs/ What if those days are gone?” sings Haines. “My memory is strong/ Anyone not dying is dead/ And baby it won’t be long/ So shut up and carry on/ A scream becomes a yawn.” That is, keep plowing away in spite of it all, and presumably also in spite of the fact that the musical vernacular here could hardly sound any less ‘relevant,’ any less ‘real’ or ‘authentic,’ any more synthetic, industry-endorsed, or Grey’s Anatomy-ready if it tried. In a recent interview with Drowned in Sound, James Shaw actually opined: “It’s like, there is such a thing as like an actual vintage t-shirt…” I shit you not.

And yet, I feel like I want to defend Metric. The reasons why are partly biographical. I really enjoyed their first two records back in the mid-noughties when I was just emerging from my teens and getting into things like feminism and feeling somewhat disenfranchised. Haines’ solo work with the Soft Skeleton particularly appealed to me, with its quiet politics and gentle strangeness. But as I’ve gotten older, Metric don’t seem to have come along for the ride. If anything, the New Wave aesthetic of 2003’s Old World Underground was considerably more ‘mature’-sounding than the tweendie rock of the Metric circa 2009’s Fantasies. Is that something I can really criticize them for, I wonder? Maybe. Personally, I’d love to have heard them take their sound in a more interesting direction. I’m sure they easily could have, and I’m puzzled that they didn’t want to. But I also feel like, for a certain demographic, a certain kind of listener there really might be something worth holding on to here.

Take “Lost Kitten,” for instance. It sounds awful at first. But then you realize it’s a parody. Both musically and (particularly) vocally, the song embodies precisely the kind of vapid, sexkitten-ish attitude (“Don’t say yes if you can’t say no/ Victim of the system, say it isn’t so/ Squatted on the doorstep/ Swallowed all the blow/ Leaving without you, can’t say no”) and its male counterpart (“No more hotheaded Saturdays/ They got it, they want it, they give it away/ Tell me one thing you would never do/ I was looking for a hooker when I found you) being critiqued in the lyrics. Sure, it’s not exactly feminist rocket science. But there’s a valid point being made here in an interesting way. It can matter, if you let it.

Metric have always been like that actually. Easy to dismiss, but possible to take seriously if so inclined. I’m reminded of that lyric on ”Handshakes” from Live it Out: “Buy this car to drive to work, drive to work to pay for this car,” repeated over and over with increasing intensity. It’s totally trite in a way, but somehow, to me, it’s always managed to feel almost profound. The same goes for a couple of moments on “Poster of a Girl” and “Monster Hospital.”

What Metric require, I think, is either a certain youthful naivety or a suspension of one’s cynicism, even if it is in many instances perfectly valid. Whether or not it’s worth the effort is up to you.

…Oh yes… and Lou Reed has a cameo. It’s not that interesting, except inasmuch as it provides yet another example of the extent to which rebellion has become commensurate with the establishment. Lou Reed and Metric: two sides of the same coin.

Links: Metric - Metric Music International/Mom + Pop

Most Read