In Brief: For the first eight tracks, it’s a solid synthpop/indie rock record, easily as strong as some of the best material on Fantasies. Unfortunately things go south for the last four tracks, especially on the closing instrumental suite.
It’s pretty easy at this point to tell what you’re going to get from a new Metric album. While I would say that their sound has evolved over the years and they’re not afraid to throw a few curveballs, for the most part they’ve carved out a niche of straight-ahead synthpop with an occasional dose of more energetic guitar rock to round things out, and it works well for them and they’re sticking to their guns. This was a winning formula on Fantasies, the album that first got me into the band six years ago, but the big reason it worked was because the hooks and melodies were strong, and the lyrics, which often commented on the seedier side of celebrity and the needier side of relationships, were well-written. Throw in one or two moodier tracks like the understated standout “Twilight Galaxy”, and it was easy to fall in love. The follow-up, Synthetica, had a lot of the same ingredients, but to me it felt like had about half the heart of its predecessor. Despite a solid single or two, I just could not get into that record. This year’s offering, the intriguingly titled Pagans in Vegas, doesn’t seem to offer anything radically different at first, but it’s immediately apparent as I listen to the first several tracks on this record that they’ve learned how to be a bit more consistent. Out of twelve tracks, I’d say the first eight are home runs or darn close to it. After that, they start to run afoul of the same blandness that made a good chunk of Synthetica forgettable, though not necessarily for the exact same reasons.
The pros of Pagans are easy to spot. Emily Haines still has what it takes in the “call out the industry for its trashiness” department, as evidenced in the shallow lust and greed of the first few songs but then she can turn on a dime and be surprisingly upbeat and resilient, as seen on the next several tracks. And she’s not afraid to turn the microscope on herself and her own destructive tendencies. For the most part, she balances the glitter and the garbage quite well. Her bandmates do an excellent job of sounding half-human and half-machine, as is Metric’s way – some of these songs could have come straight from a laptop, while on others it’s quite clear that this is a real, living and breathing band that wants to rock your face off. Since I’ve always been intrigued by the intersection of these seemingly diametrically opposed approaches to making music, there’s a part of me that appreciates how easily a lot of these songs could be plugged into a commercial context, and yet how the band’s ethos remains fiercely independent.
The cons are unfortunately easy to spot, too: When the band fails, it’s not because they’re trying too hard to come up with a hit single, as a lot of bands of their ilk might – it’s usually more because the overall rhythm and pace of a song isn’t engaging or because the hook isn’t strong enough, as seen on the album’s last four tracks (and sadly, it torpedoes one of their most well-written songs in the process). Unfortunately it’s the band’s most experimental moment that turns out to be the biggest waste of time, in the form of an improvised instrumental coda that takes up the last two tracks of the album. In principle, I’m glad they were willing to try such a thing, but in practice, it’s not all that interesting to listen to. Despite that, I’m excited that the band was able to keep the bar set so high for themselves on the first eight tracks, which makes Pagans a winter even if my interest in the album ends up waning significantly two-thirds of the way through.
1. Lie Lie Lie
Emily comes out swinging on the first track, which hits a lot of the expected cynical notes on the superficiality of the entertainment industry and its treatment of women, but the band handles it with enough sass to make it a worthwhile listen. “Offer me a free lobotomy”, she sneers in what sounds like a half-drugged tone of voice, and then later she comments, “Naked in the movie, make me the director’s pet.” It’s a simple but strong lyric that pairs extremely well with the bounce of the syncopated rhythm and the taut guitar riffs – it’s as almost as if they’re bossing you around, telling you this is how it has to be and you damn well better get used to it. (Sarcastically, of course.) Only when she whips out the Dylan Thomas quote “Rage against the dying of the light” in the second verse, using it several times without much of an apparent context, does the song falter a bit, but it comes back strong with its simplest words, which sound like an intentional, satirical mis-use of the syllables “lie la lie” that adorn a lot of folk songs, emphasizing that the whole system is telling you one big fat fib.
The synths and programmed drums come to the forefront on this song, which pulls a neat trick as its verse and chorus shift back and forth from fulls-peed to half speed simply by shifting the emphasis on the beat, without the song losing any of its momentum. I’m not as clear what this song is commenting on, but Emily seems to be playing the role of an overly eager stockbroker, guaranteeing investors that a hot commodity will make them money “hand over fist” and basically work miracles like wringing “blood from a stone”. The sound of it is more on the optimistic and cheery side, but Emily’s unbelievable promises yank it right back into the land of jaded social commentary. Pair this one with Muse‘s “Animals” for maximum effect.
3. The Shade
Now if you’re looking for positivity without the cruel irony, Metric’s got you covered with this song. With its little 8-bit synth notes that sound like an overexcited Q*bert, Emily and the band fully embrace the good and the bad that comes along with it, unabashedly dedicating the entire song to the experience of life itself. I’m making it sound hopelessly generic, but I think the way she explains it in the chorus provides enough detail to make it sound like more of an original thought: “A blade of grass, a grain of sand/The moonlit sea, to hold your hand/I want it all, I want it all.” It’s probably the most accessible, pop-oriented track on the album, and I could see some getting irritated with the repeating synth hook, but I think it’s a lot of fun. Metric typically isn’t a “happy”-sounding band despite all of the bright colors in their palette, so it’s nice to hear something genuinely upbeat from them once in a while.
Surely there will be a few spoilsports who weren’t ready for the burst of happiness in that previous track… and this song seems to be calling them out as total party-poopers. “Who wants to celebrate, and who just wants to sit and wait? I gave it everything ’cause I just wanted you to feel the same”, she sings, presumably trying to address the mopers waiting around for a better day and refusing to get out there on the dance floor. Metric has certainly dabbled in dance music before, but the glitzy shine of the keyboards in this song make it possibly their most club-oriented effort to date, at least up until the purposefully obsolete synths come in on the chorus, which has a similar slowdown effect to the one from “Fortunes”. In a way it’s like they’re fusing different eras of electronic pop music, and I love both sides of it even if the transition from one to the other was initially a bit jarring.
This track is paradoxical to me, in the best way possible. It’s the most synthed-out, machine-like thing I’ve ever heard from Metric, and yet at the same time, it’s an infectious little jam that feels like the work of a real, living and breathing band and not just something spit out by a few laptops. Emily’s intent was to fuse her voice to the computerized sounds, which explains the liberal use of Autotune throughout the song – she doesn’t need the correction, of course, but she apparently wanted to sound like GLADos from Portal (minus the backhanded insults). The effect is mesmerizing. The slinky, moody melody of the song is one of the most memorable things I’ve heard all year, and even within the sense of total encouragement to get off your rump and be moved by the things you love most about life is inspiring, there’s a sense of melancholy to it as she sings of “Cascading waves of emotion/Cascading over us still/From leaving things left unspoken/The way we always will.” I adore the extended breakdown in the bridge, where the synths are ping-ponging back and forth and the (highly processed guitar) is jamming back and forth on some simple chords and the whole thing is lit up like a neon pinball machine. Pair this one with Chvrches‘ “Clearest Blue” for maximum effect.
6. For Kicks
Emily, you’ve been a bad, bad girl. Maybe not really, but if we are to assume this song is a confession of real events, then yeah, she’s basically owning up to getting into relationships for fun and ditching out on the dudes just when stuff starts to get real. With its mix of 80s-style synths and drum pads and fluid guitar melodies, this song could have easily fit alongside some of Fantasies’ best tracks. She mourns her own self-destructiveness here as she sings “Why’d I have to be such trouble to please?/It wouldn’t be me, oh if it was easy”, realizing that the hearts she broke on purpose might never mend. (Incidentally, on every page of the liner notes, there’s an image that somehow correlates to the meaning of each song, and when it gets to this one, the picture is of a single high heel. For “Kicks”. Get it?)
7. Too Bad, So Sad
With similar syncopation to “Lie Lie Lie”, but with the guitars kicked up several notches, this is by far the most aggressive song on Pagans, and one of its most addictive choices for a radio single. (Just try to not to join in when she shouts “Too bad, WOO-HOO!” during the chorus. I dare you.) That same sense of capturing what you want in the here and now instead of waiting around hoping for the weather to change that was explored in “Celebrate” is present here, but this time around the tone is almost mocking, as if the entire song is at once the world’s smallest violin and the world’s biggest middle finger. That’s not to say she’s insulting the people who have petty first-world problems – it’s just that she wants you to take that attitude toward those problems and not get so hung up on them that you can’t move on. It’s a song written with the hopes of putting those issues in perspective, making them only as large as we allow them to be. However you interpret it, it sure kicks a lot of ass.
8. Other Side
Fans of female-fronted bands can be really weird about it when someone else in the band steps up to sing lead. At least, I’ve noticed it with Chvrches , and I’m sure there are a few other bands I’m not thinking of at the moment who let a guy sing lead occasionally. Guitarist Jimmy Shaw tries his hand at it here, and while the song has a very different feel than Metric’s usual, I like it. A whole lot, actually. The song didn’t seem like much at first – the lyrics are pretty simple and the chorus has no words – at least, until the second time around when Emily comes in to fill in the gaps: “Who am I on the other side/You were mine on the other side.” Mood-wise, I think it’s a brilliant mood piece – upbeat, poppy, full of synths, but beautifully textured so that the synths meld with Shaw’s voice to create a warm, enveloping sort of feeling. His voice and Emily’s blend nicely as well – I always love the idea of a different voice in the band stepping up to offer a unique perspective on the music they all make together. While I’ll admit I haven’t paid as close attention to the lyrics here as on a few of the other songs, there’s one line that jumps out at me because of how full of sadness and anticipation it is at the same time: “And all we want is to feel like all we got/Didn’t cost us everything/Even if we never win.”
9. Blind Valentine
This is where the downhill slide begins. It’s the first time on the album that Metric has really slowed down – and I’ve gotta say I love them for keeping the energy up this long, but it makes the record feel uneven due to how it ends on two songs with a similar slow-to-medium tempo and not that much interesting going on in the rhythm or synth department. This song feels like it’s trying to drive in a hook by brute force, but it’s completely inelegant – the melody feels incredibly flat and the chorus is far too repetitive. Emily’s trying to illustrate the difference between her life and the life of someone who is apparently too guarded or too afraid of failure to really open up to her, and I kind of get the mood she’s going for, but there’s a real lack of detail in the lyrics that keeps me at a distance from whatever conclusion she’s drawing.
10. The Governess
As far as lyrics go, this song is a total 180 from the previous one – it may be one of Metric’s most insightfully written tunes. Nostalgia for our youth or for the “golden age” of rock & roll or America or whatever you want to put on your rose-tinted glasses and romanticize is pretty common, but Emily’s not buying it. Older and wiser, she’s looking back and questioning whether those really were the good old days or whether we were just to innocent to know what the heck was going on back then. In keeping with some of the hollow pursuits mentioned earlier in the record, this song cuts like a knife when it asks, “What if we were dumb enough to spend eternity/Gathering the garbage washed up on the beach?” It’s really too bad that the group has chosen the strumming a rather lethargic acoustic guitar and some “squirty” synths as the backdrop for this, as it’s thoroughly uninteresting to me and does nothing to accentuate the strength of their lyrics. What could have been a stunning conclusion to the lyrical portion of the album instead just seems to sputter out with a whimper.
11. The Face, Pt. 1
So, I mentioned Muse upthread, and even though it’s a bit of a coincidence, the two instrumental tracks that close out the album do remind me of how Muse closed out The 2nd Law, in that it’s mostly computerized, highly indulgent, and to be honest, not all that meaningful. Muse at least managed to be outrageous with the dubsteppy first half of their ridiculous suite; metric is mild-mannered by comparison with this “robot rock” tune, which is all programmed drums and the synth playing a rather pedestrian lead melody. Nobody gets to really show off here – it just sort of cruises on by without making much of an impression. Token lyrics do show up in the form of highly digitized voices singing “All we are”, but that’s nothing to write home about. Apparently not knowing how to tie this into the second half of the suite, the song eventually collapses into a digital recording of “Für Elise” while a phone – one of those old landlines, probably – obnoxiously rings over and over and over again, eventually kicking over to voicemail. It’s blatant filler.
12. The Face, Pt. 2
The second half of the closing suite starts out as a soft, slow, and rather dull synth instrumental. Then after a few minutes it becomes a loud, slow, and rather dull synth instrumental. The end!
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Lie Lie Lie $1.25
The Shade $1.50
For Kicks $1.25
Too Bad, So Sad $1.75
Other Side $1.50
Blind Valentine $.50
The Governess $.75
The Face, Pt. 1 $.25
The Face, Pt. 2 –$.50
Emily Haines: Lead vocals, synthesizers, guitars, tambourine, harmonica, piano
James Shaw: Guitars, synthesizers, theremin, backing vocals
Joshua Winstead: Bass, synthesizers, backing vocals
Joules Scott-Key: Drums, percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: