On first listen, Metric’s latest electro-rock number, “Youth Without Youth,” may not make much sense as a lead single. With it’s heavily processed vocals, repetitive guitar work and absence of any real chorus, it lacks the basic formula that gained Metric unprecedented radio-play and acclaim following the release of 2009’s Fantasies. But these kind of dramatic shifts in sound are what have kept everyone following Metric’s (and lead-singer Emily Haines’) every move since forming over a decade ago.
Like every album Metric puts out, Synthetica is far from a repeat of their last effort. The ultra-tight production and airy soundscapes that permeated much of Fantasies is still present, but the larger-than-life choruses and slick guitar riffs have been exchanged for a more cerebral approach.
A distortion heavy synth-line opens mid-album highlight “Dreams So Real,” (the title a reference to one of her late-father’s poems) which sees Haines denouncing some of her previous feminist outcries and social efforts by questioning whether any of it really mattered at all. The song is more desolate and hopeless than anything since Haines’ solo album Knives Don’t Have Your Back in 2006, and is a reminder of how powerful of an impact she can have when she truly bares all, or as Haines audaciously puts it, when she’s “stripped down to [her] thong.”
Synthetica rarely reaches other moments of such heroic insightfulness, but thankfully makes up for this with classic Metric tunes like the heavy hitting title track or the sweetly sinister “Lost Kitten,” where Haines sings the line “I was looking for a hooker when I found you” as if she were bashfully reading a Valentine’s card.
But for every sugar-high there is a looming low, and on Synthetica the lowlight is undoubtedly Haines’ collaboration with the legendary Lou Reed on second-to-last track “The Wanderlust.” This track may not seem that mediocre if you’ve recently suffered through Lulu – Reed’s universally panned collaborative album with Metallica – but its lackluster beat and hardly impressive lyrics leave much to be desired. And if you haven’t guessed already, Lou Reed’s characteristically half-sung, half-spoken vocals sound especially out of place next to Haines’ pitch-perfect delivery.
Thankfully we have album closer “Nothing But Time” to steer us back to more pleasing territory, which recalls fan-favourites like “Ending Start” or “Blindness” from past releases. Although it follows a fairly predictable format for Metric, it’s still undeniably emotive and provides the album with the climax it needs to give off those awe inspiring, lying-on-your-bedroom-floor feelings that every record’s last moments aspire to.
But even right after the most gripping build-up of the album occurs and the fifty-second fade-out ends, the album still feels somewhat inconclusive. When Haines dryly sings the last line “I got nothing but time, so the future is mine” there’s a sort of sad hope that there may be something more. While Fantasies ended with a full-on aural assault in the form of “Stadium Love” – which may very well have been a bit too much to handle – Synthetica takes the opposite route and ends on an underwhelming note which seems to undermine the entire album. Metric being a band well versed in the exercise of constraint and understatement can usually strike a good balance, but on Synthetica they may have aimed a bit too low.