It’s about time, really. 21 episodes in and I’d been waiting for a new Metronomy album to arrive so we could finally cover it on the podcast. Disclosure: there’s no point in pretending otherwise, but I’ve been an unashamed fan since the blog started in the dim and distant 2010s, and in my mind, they’re a band that should fit right into the middle of our sprawling Venn diagram, so I was surprised to find out that Joey and Nolan weren’t nearly as familiar with them as I thought. Challenge accepted: at least as with many things, I have Pop Being David for company here. But I still wavered, with February’s avalanche of great new music from the likes of pod favourite Mitski, psych rock Animal Collective, Trentemoller as as well as heralded new year picks from Bonobo and Yard Act. In the end though, I couldn’t pass this up. I’d have kicked myself. And when I second guess myself I end up in the Talvin Zone ™.
My love affair with Joe Mount’s musical outfit began as it did for many, back in 2011 with their third album: The English Riviera. Its the record that really ‘broke’ the band, with its wry take on life and love in the English south coast and Mount’s home town of Totnes in Devon. Along with headline-grabbing singles The Bay and The Look came tales of small-town ennui, love, loss and introspection, all played out on a canvas of synths, crisp percussion, guitar licks and funk bass, and I was smitten. Yes, they were clearly a pop outfit, but they crept into the far more interesting territory of ‘alternative’ British pop music that had something to say, and an intriguing way to say it. For all the chart-ready vibrancy of the singles, there also sat musical beauty and character from the likes of Some Written’s soft tones, sultry funk of We Broke Free and the kaleidoscopic closer Love Underlined. It marked out a step up for the four-piece, whose line-up had been reworked and for whom Mount, as the driving force was proving his rare talents as – in my eyes at least – one of the country’s best singer-songwriter-producers.
I have very specific memories of the album too. I came to love it in the slightly surreal surroundings of Monaco. Having ligged onto a trip to the Grand Prix weekend with friends David and Will that worked in the feeder GP2 series, I was listening to its unfurling eleven tracks on the actual Riviera. I feel that Joe Mount would’ve enjoyed that irony (hi Joe, if you’re reading). So I’m always treated to both a really vivid recollection of the surroundings I was in, and a hark back to the start of my love affair with the band. I’ve not been back to Monaco since, but then I don’t need to. I just fire up the strings in that opening and I’m there. That led me to their underrated predecessor, Nights Out, which had its own idiosyncratic attraction, less so to the bedroom debut guitar/synth mish-mash Pip Paine (Pay The £5000 You Owe), but from which a lineage through to their later albums could still be traced. I gorged on the lot. I had found a band that I could love in the same universe at Hot Chip and LCD, one that took a more mainstream template and bent it to their own shape.
Before 2022, David actually chose their last album – the excellent Metronomy Forever – as one of our monthly picks in the ‘before times’ of 2019, but it’s a surprise searching back through the archives that it appears the only time we’ve done it, (though I’m convinced we did pick the English Riviera back in the proto-blog days of Posterous, at least as something we all listened to). It’s been a joy waiting for each album to come out, from the 60s-pop window of Love Letters, through the out and out punch of Summer 08‘s window to the pre-English Riviera years, through to the precursor to Small World, the more sprawling and interesting Metronomy Forever. Every one of them has brought new songs to love, new skills to marvel at, and an ever-growing adoration for Mount’s skills. All the while he’s been behind Metronomy’s success, he’s a modest but brilliant producer whose work’s been part of output by everyone from Robyn to thecocknbullkid and remixing everyone from Gorillaz, Goldfrapp and Lady Gaga, while being a big element in the supergroup of production talent on early pod favourite Jessie Ware’s ‘What’s Your Pleasure’?
Enter: Small World. Timing is everything, and many great albums from artists we love have missed the window for an AOTM: Caribou, Roisin Murphy, in recent times stood out here. So I have gambled somewhat on giving ourselves a compressed sixteen days from release to record, with this post coming only ten days in. We’ve had some albums for ten times that before now. But we’ve already had a taster in the shape of two excellent singles – Things Will Be Fine and It’s Good To Be Back (check the videos that top and tail this post) – to grace the start of 2022. An album of 9 songs over thirty-five minutes should be easy to gorge on. I just hope that it won’t be too short a time to hit that magic mark where you really fall for a record. After all, I showed with The Weather Station that it’s easy to be unsure when we record and to have changed your mind by the time we put the episode’s out. A very first world problem.
But I needn’t have worried, because Small World is an absolute joy, stripping back the layers while extolling the simple pleasures in life after the great reset we all felt. But it is also a marked departure. Musically, it’s still clearly tres Metronomy but there are some significant, if intriguing changes to the normal synth-pop template. The main one of these is the synths: they’re not absent, but very much on the fringes, something that feels unheard of for the band, and that may risk rubbing lots of fans right up the wrong way.
In fact, on the record sleeve – and I gloried in the vinyl here, something I’ve started most days working from home with in the background – Mount stated that the idea was to have none on the record, only piano and hammond organ. And a brilliant quote on their Instagram that’s both serious and self-deprecating that sums up the band in many ways: “I thought I’d like to do something musical, that isn’t very electronic…. someone taking themselves a bit seriously and thinking they should do a Nashville record. It’s almost a midlife crisis”. It’s funny because it just is, but also because Joe Mount is entering mid life. And while it doesn’t quite work out as synth-free, piano and acoustic guitars are very much a running motif of the album, from the cascading melody in the slow-burn opener Life and Death.
The tone is set from the off as one of change: middle age, family, introspection, anxiety, growing old. All things we’ve seen many times from artists that have gone from loose-limbed twenty-somethings to 40-somethings, looking back on their youth and forward into the future, but for Mount, whose musical character has been so steeped in pop and its youthful slant, this is something that comes with risk. And it’s album that’s much more personal, as he admitted in a recent excellent interview with DIY mag. “I’ve always thought that pop music is for teenagers, and I’ve always thought that I make pop music. So if what I do doesn’t interest those people, then I’m not doing very well.“
In Life and Death, there’s a bleakness to the lyrics that runs through the album at times, as Mount, far more than before, shifts from love, loss, parties and an ironic twist on English life to move himself towards the centre of the action: “It was fun what I did /
Got a job, had some kids / See you in the abyss”, both perhaps a personal state of mind but also a reference to the two years the album took shape in, one where we all got more accustomed to both life and death itself. Not perhaps the sound of a content man, but it’s never quite clear with Metronomy how much is for lyrical effect and how much is real, because his relocation to the country and his first purpose-built studio has found him far more balanced with the life of a parent pop star than he’s sounded in years.
Trying to ascertain the feel for a new album is tricky. It takes time and investment, and there’s a (pleasing) bump in the road with Small World where, after the opener, the two singles then come in succession. Taken in isolation – they are almost the two tracks most out of step with the album’s palette. But when they sit in the first side of the 9 tracks, they actually take on a different hue. Things Will Be Fine’s nod to teenage angst (caused by the film that shocked many in this country, Raymond Briggs’ harrowing When The Wind Blows) can’t stay in the darkness too long: “I might save the day, i might change the world… Things will be fine“. It also referred to a mantra Mount was telling his children through the last two years, blending real life into the band’s more oblique metaphors of the past, and accompanied by a brilliant video that harks back to each of the band at 15). And its breezy guitar strums very much out of the 60s pop mould push things along, in a way that wouldn’t feel out of place on Love Letters. It’s Good To Be Back’s infectious lightness also is hard to avoid (along with the brilliant, strange video, a medium the band have always enjoyed to great effect since The Look). It’s the song that stuck in my head through January, but it’s after this opening salvo where things get interesting. It’s not diminishing those tracks, but ultimately, the lead singles will always feel a little incongruous when you’ve gorged on them before the album arrives.
It may be reductive to paint Small World’s change in tone as reducing the band’s strengths (and some have crudely done that) but I’ve found the album to be a continually rewarding and engaging experience, and it’s down to the subtle shifts in direction and style throughout that provide this again and again. There’s an argument that I definitely acknowledge, that when you strip away the synths and the bounce of so many of their previous tracks, that there’s potential exposure of some lyrical lack of adventure that Metronomy have been painted with the past. I see that. But it’s also doing a disservice to the beauty of the melodies and the near-perfection arrangements in this record too. Plenty of great pop music doesn’t need to be profound or lyrically mesmerising. Simply saying ‘this isn’t like Salted Caramel Ice Cream‘ is just stating a fact. To me, either you love Metronomy in all their forms or perhaps you rethink what your musical directions are. I mean, this is hardly Kid A here. Many of these songs could slot into an existing album without much effort, it’s just the whole narrative that feels different. But as much as many of their albums to date, this feels fully formed and whole.
Continuing the A-side (sorry, mp3 crew), Loneliness on the Run’s 90s-esque intro of plucked bass makes me think of Weezer and the yesteryear US-garage indie scene, but soars into a different space from its harmonies, adding a sprinkle of light in a starry melody in the break. Even as it moves along, there are unmistakably familiar splashes in each song. And vocal harmonies are a BIG, beautiful part of the record, elevating what feel like more formulaic tracks to something much more beautiful. If pianos are one motif, then acoustic guitars and harmonies are very much the other two in the triumvirate of what Small World does differently.
In the middle of it all, sits my album favourite: Love Factory. There’s a real 70s/80s AOR vibe on it, with its vocal interplay – not hard to see the lineage from Mount’s love of the likes of Steely Dan to this moment – and its treatment of love as something perhaps less romantic and spontaneous but ‘churned out’. There’s irony here – as the protagonist tries to show his usefulness in the face of the ‘factory’ production line – but the melody carries the song along on a cloud. Lyrically, it’s perhaps the simplest and most straightforward of the album but Mount’s talked about the song being ‘relentless’ here, with its looped melody and listing verses. But the fuzz guitar and circular piano phrases have had me woken up in the night singing its notes. That is hard to reject.
Lost My Mind is an interesting curveball, even as it shares some familiarity. The literal and metaphorical losing of one’s mind in the pandemic: ‘how friends of ours in quite different situations were just in apartments, on their own, feeling very isolated and out of touch‘ was another quite personal statement from Mount. But the music really evoked something specific in me. I felt a real Bowie energy here, with a sprinkling of Eno in the strange choral/vox synth chords, before the piano wig-out that closed the song. It really is hard to shake that feel, so I am fascinated if any of the group’s Bowie antennae felt similarly tweaked. At the other end of the pendulum, Right On Time (complete with a suitably daft skydiving video) urges us to try and ‘enjoy the sunshine’, even as we all sat in Covid-gloom. That even while things were scary and sad, there are simple pleasures we can take in.
The album closes with two more intriguing tracks. The first is a rare guest on the album outside the Metronomy universe: Hold Me Tonight sees Porridge Radio’s Dana Margolin join into what is arguably the most straightforward love song on the record. A tale of desperation and hope, unrequited love as Mount’s verses. It’s a relatively breezy 90s-esque indie pop jangler until Margolin’s striking vocals enter at the halfway mark: ‘so you found the courage / do you regret it yet / it’s not what you wanted / but I guess it’s off your chest’. I think it’s a fascinating dynamic where the male vocal is higher than the female, and less powerful, playing with the balance on literal and metaphorical levels. And a song that was a totally different slant, almost binned and then resurrected when Mount sent it to Dana for her input, turning it into a desolate and unexpected response. It’s a masterstroke of serendipity. I’ve listened to it so many times – and as someone that’s not really come across much of Porridge Radio – and I can’t quite place who the vocal makes me recall. I’d want to say Robert Smith but that doesn’t feel quite right. But it’s a definitely welcoming development and one of the standout tracks.
Closer I Have Seen Enough I first thought was a bleak tale of a failed marriage – we can watch the flowerbeds rising / Each year our children grow / I will sit with you in silence /
As we watch our favourite show” – but it’s much less specific than that, of course echoing the pandemic, but also again urging us to enjoy the small, simple things in life. For a song that’s quite slow and maudlin, it’s quite the sleight of hand, actually having such a positive message. It’s also odd that it was originally planned to be sung in French. Mais non.
In living with this album almost endlessly for the last ten days, I’m naturally concerned that I’m going to be prejudiced not only by my own gasping adoration for the band, but also a need to step back and try and gain some perspective away from the churn of dozens (twenty now? more?) of listens that have made me love it more. But I could easily burn it out, and by the time we record (in a week) be sick of it. Or at least see it lose its lustre and perhaps edge closer to some of the ‘yeah, it’s lovely but….’ critical responses. But right now, it’s an album I can’t put down. And having waited three years since its predecessor, and seen such a departure, it feels much more like one whose ‘woah’ softens with each listen, and by now, just feels as Metronomy as ever. It also makes me wonder where their next album will go, and feel already excited about that.
I wonder what the others will make of it. I suspect I may be flying a lone flag here. I know brother @davidhallison is a big fan of the band, and should really like this, but I’m not so sure. And as the record approaches, it always gets more shaky when it’s a band you adore. Is it – as it has from others first reactions – ‘not Metronomy enough’? And for @misterstory and @nolankane706, perhaps too much of a departure from all those Metronomy bangers of the past? But I really do think this is an album – and that’s what we’re here for aren’t we? – that works as well as any of their previous ones as an entity. It is quintessentially English, has a theme, is perfectly short, and taut, arranged beautifully, and makes me want to go for another listen again and again (even if I have to turn the record over, at least I’m getting out of my chair). I may not convince everyone of this. But perhaps I don’t have to. I’m happy with it. Things will be fine.