Canadian sweethearts Metric are the masters of change. Since their inception in 1998, the Toronto-based fourpiece has released a total of five distinct albums. On each, they masterfully toe the line between continuity and evolution, and their first four records earned them a reputation for perpetual evolution and consistently great songwriting. With their fifth release, Metric erupts onto a grandiose new plane. Thrilling and colossal, Synthetica is a pulsating collection of indie-synth anthems.
In a recent Spinner interview, frontwoman Emily Haines joked about her penchant for misery: “I’m used to everyone telling me, from as long as I can remember, ‘you know, you’re pretty dark.’ Yeah, I fucking know. I’m a heavy cat.” In the past, this tendency has manifested itself in crooning emotional laments like “Soft Rock Star” and “Combat Baby.” These songs were gloomy, to be sure, but they don’t hold a barely-flickering candle to Synthetica. On this release, Haines describes a crumbling dystopia and the musician’s continual quest for authenticity. Beneath its smooth electronic production and Haines’ sugary vocals, Synthetica is gritty, sinister, and ultimately inspiring. Metric has mastered the musician's paradox, sufficiently evolving without neglecting their roots.
The album begins with “Artificial Nocturne,” a swooning, infectious self-reflection that sets the tone for the rest of the album. Both meditative and motivating, the opener combines thrilling layers of instrumentation with painfully desperate lyrics. Surprisingly, what most listeners would guess to be a synth is actually a 60s organ played through a homemade pedal—an inventive choice that proves that Metric is willing to try just about anything. Next comes “Youth Without Youth,” an enormous track that describes a decaying society in all its grimy detail. It’s a behemoth of a song that will have you convinced that Haines is a Muse fan. Synthetica continues its rather apocalyptic themes with “Speed the Collapse,” another cynical account of societal collapse that blends girlish 60s backup vocals with pure, unabashed bombast.
With the fourth song, Synthetica moves from rebellion to introspection. On “Breathing Underwater,” Emily Haines deals with issues of mortality and purpose, begging us to answer her desperate question: “Is this my life? Am I breathing underwater?” The self-criticism extends through “Dreams So Real”—a short and heart-wrenching tale of regret—and “Lost Kitten”—a whimsical tune that balances sugary rhythmic clapping with dark, troubling lyrics.
Narrower and less adventurous than the preceding tunes, “The Void” is the album's least successful song. It’s quickly followed by the title track, whose lyrics capture the concept behind the entire album: “In the shadow of the big screen, everybody begs to be redeemed.” Uniting the despair of “Speed the Collapse” and the self-criticism of “Dreams So Real,” “Synthetica” is defiant and bold as Haines refuses to cave to the pressure of consumerism.
Metric slows things down with “Clone,” a gut-wrenching exercise in introspection. Simultaneously regretful and hopeful, “Clone” demonstrates Emily Haines’ incredible versatility. After a series of rebellious power anthems, this track’s intimacy is surprising and welcome. The next track, “Wanderlust,” exhibits Metric’s startling new guest vocalist: legendary Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed. Reed’s rendition of the chorus is a perfect complement to Haines’ modern resignation; he’s rough, old-fashioned, and about as authentic as it gets. Synthetica concludes with “Nothing But Time,” a heartening dreamscape that provides a glimmer of hope after the series of troubling, dark tracks.
“I’m just as fucked up as they say,” Emily Haines laments as Synthetica’s opening line. Yet for all its initial despair, Metric’s fifth album is ultimately uplifting. By the end of the album, her sentiments have changed to the slightest hint of hope: “I got nothing but time, so the future is mine.” More than anything else, Synthetica is a journey. From regretful desolation to hesitant optimism, Metric’s latest album prove that the Canadian fourpiece isn’t afraid to change—and they’re really, really good at it.