Release Date: June 12, 2012
Label: Mom + Pop
Unlike Broken Social Scene — her besties in the very social scene from which she sprang — Emily Haines has never seemed destined for anonymity. Since 2003, when she presented the world at large with her own band Metric — via the new wave-indebted firecracker Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? — Haines has sure-footedly and purposefully inched closer to the brightest possible spotlight. Her band’s fourth album, 2009’s Fantasies provided the tipping point, pushing Metric into big rooms and onto Twilight soundtracks. And now, Synthetica completes the journey: It’s big, glossy, sexy, and willing, but never cheap.
Intentionally or not, Metric also takes their lessons from a half-dozen chart-topping bands, beginning most directly with Death Cab for Cutie. On album opener “Artificial Nocturne,” Haines sounds a little like Ben Gibbard, while the music echoes “I Will Possess Your Heart,” with its big, dark intro giving way to a humming motorik groove. It’s actually the most left-field moment on the record (save for a certain vocal cameo; more about that in a minute), as if Metric were proving they could experiment if they wanted to, but now isn’t the time.
Which is fine, because Haines and guitarist James Shaw sound better the closer they get to the center of any given musical target, whether that was their version of Blondie a decade ago or their version of Garbage here. Haines emulates Shirley Manson’s spirit on both the fabulous “Youth Without Youth” (whose AutoTuned ghost voices are a nice touch) and “The Void,” which suggests that Haines’ once-foregrounded political leanings have given way to something more personal: She sings with some regret about not being able to keep pace as she gets older. (Nice touch that the sentiment is couched in late-night electro — she still knows what it sounds like to party all night, even if she’s personally not doing it as much anymore.)
And that’s not the only place where Haines looks inward on Synthetica. She’s a bit obsessed with positioning herself as the real thing, perhaps concerned by just how user-friendly these songs are. She wants to play in the big leagues and feel good about it, the way Gibbard, Bono, Chris Martin, and Jay-Z do. To sell out arenas without selling out. “I’m not synthetica,” she sings on the title track, before dropping this slightly unfortunate statement of purpose: “We’re all the time confined to fit the mold / But I won’t ever let them make a loser of my soul.” Exploring the same territory, “Clone” sounds indebted to the Drive soundtrack, with chilly synths underscoring the sentiment that different equals better: “I look like everyone you know now,” she laments.
She doesn’t look like everyone you know now, of course, and she knows it. Unlike everyone you know, she’s got potential hits in her hip pocket, from “Breathing Underwater” (which sounds like the ass-kicking younger sister of “With or Without You”) to “Speed the Collapse,” which features another Death Cab-sticky chorus. And she’s even got new friends along for the ride: Notorious grouch Lou Reed (who’s collaborated with Haines before) shows up for penultimate track “Wanderlust,” which might just be an official welcome to the big leagues from an old master. The song’s pure bliss is a surprise — we all know what can happen when Reed teams up with other grouches, and it ain’t pretty.
But Reed is just the unlikely cherry atop this confection — something he’s probably never been been before, come to think of it. Synthetica manufactures dependable, big-hearted joy straight through, whether it’s slightly gloomy or coquettish or just flat-out pop fun. There’s a certain comfort in that familiarity, in watching something terrific unfold exactly as you expected it to.