Metronomy - Love Letters
Metronomy forgo subtlety for a 60s inspired sound, yet don’t fully commit
With all of the electronic-based indie albums that have been released in the past few years, it has become harder and harder to stick out. While some groups have favored a maximalist approach, throwing in all the bleeps and bloops they can, Metronomy’s distinguishing feature seemed to be their subtlety. On their 2011 album The English Riviera, nearly every song was crafted so that any sort of added instrumentation or note change was easily perceptible. Melodies were framed around a basic, repetitive synthesizer part and frontman Joseph Mount’s vocals. From the few tracks I’ve heard from their earlier albums, this style was quite different, yet the formula really seemed to work for the band. There was a calm, summery feel to the music appropriate to the album’s title, yet there were still elements of dance music interwoven throughout.
Not content to make the same album twice, Metronomy ditched the seaside for the sixties in Love Letters. The polished sound of The English Riviera that allowed you to hear every subtle shift has been replaced by a stripped down, lo-fi production, and its tranquility is now juxtaposed with the occasional piercing chorus. There are common lyrical themes of longing from a distance and miscalculated romance, enmeshed in the psychedelic theme you would expect from an album with a cover like that above. You may remember that Cut Copy did a 60s throwback electronic album late last year, and that it kind of sounded like their usual fare albeit with some bongos and the repeated lyric “Free your mind.” Therefore, this idea hasn’t truly been done before, but it can be hard to commit to. Did Metronomy pull it off?
Well, kind of. The album opens with “The Upsetter,” which combines acoustic guitar strumming, a drum machine, and gentle synthesizers with Mount’s vocals going between a desperate Bowie-esque whine and falsetto. While this may sound like a formula that would give you Empire of the Sun’s “We Are The People,” it is actually one of the more subtle, slowly building songs on Love Letters and Mount’s coarse vocals let you know that it will sound nothing like its predecessor from the get go. It also introduces you to the aforementioned ‘longing from a distance’ theme with an opening line “I’ve got to beam my message to you/straight from the satellite/cause girl we’re meant to be together” and Mount’s more literal style of distance with the very clever line “we live in 1992 here/playing ‘Sleeping Satellite’/playing Prince and Deacon Blue yeah/playing ‘I Will Always Love You’ yeah.” That’s right, a reference to music in 1992. This is the track I’ve come back to the most on the album, and does a really good job of setting the scene.”
However, if “The Upsetter” sets the scene, it is the following track “I’m Aqaurius” that epitomizes it. With a beat that sounds like stereotypical elevator music in the background, Mount’s vocals kick in to sing a reinterpretation of ‘star-crossed lovers’ with the line “You said our love was written in the stars/I never paid attention to my charts.” However, the song really stands out due to the female backup chorus of “shoop-doop-doop-ah.” Everything in the song feels very gentle, and it shows that Metronomy can still do subtlety very well. However, the next appearance of that female chorus that gives the song its slight Motown feel is anything but subtle – title track “Love Letters” applies it explosively after a minute plus intro of dreary horns. In this song they only say the track/album name over and over, with Mount hammering on a keyboard and singing the verses in between. I truthfully find the song a little overdone and the chorus grating by the second time around, even if Metronomy have never shied away from being repetitive. The same can be said for its application on “Month of Sundays” where a female chorus chimes in with “Never In a Month Of Sundays” about halfway through and only chants this phrase as the song closes over a vibrant electric guitar part. To their credit, these backup choruses do give the songs the 60s feel they were aiming for, yet their jarring nature can make them less Motown and more gaudy disco.
Not all songs on Love Letters appear to be part of a theme, which has the pro of allowing the tracks to flow more freely yet somehow makes the album feel disjointed and incomplete. The most standout oddball track is the instrumental “Boy Racers,” which sounds like Daft Punk and comes complete with a bassline that can only be there to make you think of “Around The World.” While not a bad track, you may wonder “what the hell was that?” Then there are the moments reminiscent of The English Riviera, like the simple “Reservoir” and the ominous-sounding “Monstrous.” Neither are as relaxed or finely produced as the songs from their predecessor, yet they are framed in the same way around Mount’s vocals and a synthesizer. And while I keep singing the praises of Metronomy’s use of subtlety and gentleness, the remainder of the songs on Love Letters seemed to pass ‘low energy’ and go right into ‘no energy.’ Mount may have wanted to sing about the isolation and distance felt in a hotel room in “Never Wanted,” but I can’t help but tune out when he sings “tube of toothpaste, facial cleanser, bar of soap and moisturizer.” His voice all by itself doesn’t seem able to carry a song, and doubly so if he’s listing toiletries in a falsetto.
I have to give credit to Metronomy for trying something new again, and for giving the electronic-gone-60s effort a fairly original imagining. Yet for better or worse, they seemed to hold themselves back on committing to the effort, and ended up with an album that was part 60s analog production, part modern electronica, and part filler. There are some real great moments on the album, and I’m sure there are fans that love every 60s-inspired moment including “Love Letters” and “Month of Sundays.” However, it is fairly disjointed in parts, and the strong points show that the issue isn’t the toned-down production the band used this time around. It just feels really does feel restrained when you compare its high points to its lows, and this is saying something for a band that can make even the most delicate musical shift seem significant when they try.
Tags: metronomy, love letters