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The Scream Becomes A Yawn: The Songwriting of Metric’s Synthetica

Sometimes, we crave something a little more confrontational, dangerous, jaded, or weary in our music, notions of beauty and lightness cast aside, for the meantime. And that’s where Metric can come in with its own particular brand of dark beauty, contemplative and aggressive in turns. Synthetica, Metric’s fifth album released in May 2012, is a good place for new listeners to start exploring this darker beauty. The album strays towards a more accessible synth pop sound while still retaining the feminine punk bad-assness rock that makes Metric’s earlier albums such a pleasure to listen to. The lyrics are often opaque and fragmented, making them difficult to understand. But they can also be sophisticated and beautiful.

According to lead singer and keyboardist Emily Haines in an interview, “Synthetica is about being able to identify the original in a long line of reproductions. It's about what is real versus what is artificial.” The album’s title tract is the most obvious song connected to this theme. On the surface, the song “Synthetica” declares selfhood and originality in the face of artificiality. “Hey,” the singer defiantly cries in the chorus. “I’m not Synthetica.” However, synthetic-ness is still “hard to resist” and the singer subtly includes herself in her description of a shallow culture indicating that she is more susceptible to some sort of superficiality or artificiality than we may have otherwise thought. In Synthetica, the singer is an unreliable and hypocritical narrator, condemning ‘synthetica’ when she has already in some way succumbed to it herself.

The next song on the album, “Clone” is the perfect reprise to “Synthetica,” releasing us from the previous song’s passionate defiance. The singer more openly admits to her unoriginal tendencies (“I look like everyone you know now”) while taking a resigned solace in the fact that she is too late to do anything about it as “We’re already in the aftermath.” But ironically, because she’s more honest about her cloned appearance, she seems more genuine and even her “regret only makes [her] stronger yet.” In the opening songs we begin to see that sometimes the unoriginal is more authentic than the original, and admitting one’s clichés can be a source of strength.

Synthetica continues Metric’s trend to write violent, confrontational lyrics. Previous songs “Wet Blanket” and “Combat Baby” celebrate a sort of feminine badass counterculture.  The second track of Synthetica, “Youth Without Youth” similarly contains violent imagery, but more thoughtfully explores the weaknesses stemming from this counterculture. The song describes a group of friends playing a series of dangerous (and obscurely described) games until the cops show up and arrest one of them for throwing a brick through a window. These children have lost their innocence at an early age to their own violent tendencies; their “youth without youth” has tragic undertones. The singer even addresses a hangman at the beginning of each verse, presumably referencing some severe disciplinary figure. This provides the song with the obvious morbid undertones, while accentuating its playfulness, as the singer seems to be mocking the adult she calls “hangman”. Unlike songs on previous albums whose violence seems better justified, the singer of “Youth Without Youth” has a carefree and even callous attitude towards her contentious youth, an attitude that grows more unsettling as the song progresses.

However, this kind of violent songwriting seems to be short lived.  In one of the shorter tracks, “Dreams So Real”, we feel the singer growing weary of these violent outbursts. This happens in previous albums as well. On Old World Underground, Where Are You Now, the fairly energetic song “Combat Baby” is followed by “Calculation (Theme)” whose minimalistic instrumentation and lyrics (“I’m sick, you’re tired; let’s dance”) promote a similar sense of weariness. “Dreams So Real” begins by questioning the singer’s effectiveness and motives as a songwriter, yet the chorus (“I’ll shut up, carry on; the scream becomes a yawn”) interrupts this introspection with the singer’s weary determination to continue songwriting in the face of this painful doubt.  The scream becoming a yawn is a rather strange but also potent image that can be used to describe Metric’s songwriting in the way albums often transition between the violence and defiance of songs like “Synthetica,” “Youth Without Youth”, and “Speed the Collapse”, to the more peaceable and even weary introspection of songs like “Clone”, “Dreams so Real”, and “The Wanderlust.”

Metric is a band that never seems to rest on a particular mood or angle; however, their albums still retain a sense of cohesion. The overall sound and the few recurring themes give us the sense that Metric's songs are sung by one person. A couple of weeks ago I went to a Metric concert at Radio City Music Hall. Emily Haines' stage presence was exhilarating. She was a ball of energy when it counted. But the concert's most powerful element by far was that even up on the stage she felt like a whole, genuine person. I believe she believed what she sang, that this self-discovery through songwriting not only affected the constructed 'singer' of each song, but that it also affected the songwriter herself.