“I’m just as fucked up as they say” are the first words we hear from singer Emily Haines on “Artificial Nocturne,” the opening track on Metric’s fifth album Synthetica. She does nothing to disprove you of that notion over the majority of the album’s 11 tracks. While it ends on a slightly more positive note, this is as dark a record as the Toronto band has made.
That’s an unusual thing to say about an album that is, overall (and for lack of a better word), peppy. Metric has always made well-produced electronic indie rock. Guitarist/producer Jimmy Shaw knows how to layer on the sound without making it overwhelming, and gives Haines plenty of room for her vocals. To put it simply, it sounds like a Metric record. But a pretty boring one.
It certainly starts out well - the second track (and leadoff single) “Youth Without Youth” is a twisted view of childhood, with Haines singing about various children’s games and a creepy synth voice repeating the title. Yet despite the gloom, “Youth Without Youth” and its driving, consistent backbeat makes you tap your feet. This dichotomy persists throughout the record – songs about dystopia or crumbling societies somehow manage to be catchy. “Speed the Collapse” and “Breathing Underwater” are good examples; fans of earlier songs like “Gimme Sympathy” and “Help I’m Alive” will have no problems recognizing these as most indicative of Metric’s sound over the years. But, as the titles imply, these are not happy tunes, with Haines singing “Auction off our memories / in the absence of a breeze / Scatter what remains” and “Is this my life? / Am I breathing underwater?”
“Dreams So Real” starts with a three note blast that calls to mind Pictureplane’s “Goth Star,” but rather than a disjointed Stevie Nicks sample, we get an almost rap from Haines who repeats the chorus “I’ll shut up and carry on / a scream becomes a yawn.” “Dreams So Real” is the biggest downer on the album, which in a lot of ways make it the standout track. Shaw layers guitar effects and Sleigh Bells-style percussion as the song builds with Haines sounding increasingly more desperate.
From there on Synthetica takes a turn for the worse. “Lost Kitten” is a silly little pop song that relies too much on a cutesy glockenspiel. “The Void” never becomes more than a faux disco track that lacks any kick or personality.
The biggest misstep on the record, however, is “Wanderlust.” Haines’ vocals, while consistently sugary sweet, have virtually no range. She sounds almost identical to folk heroine Jill Sobule, only Sobule’s wry humor makes her a more enjoyable singer. So to pair Haines with Lou Reed, who has even less range (which is a nice way of saying he has no range at all) is a titanic error in judgment. An already bad song is made almost unlistenable as Reed tries to add to the chorus with his talk-sing. His vocals seem to be quieter than Haines’, almost as if Shaw realized he’d made a mistake but had already cut Reed the check.
It’s telling that Metric will be playing the Strathmore in September rather than one of the D.C. clubs. It seems they believe Synthetica is an album that is best enjoyed sitting down in a classical music venue, rather than with kids dancing in front of the stage. With its lush landscapes of sound, that makes sense, but let’s hope they can spice up the songs on Synthetica’s Side B to make the show worth seeing.