Posted in Album of the Month

AOTM – March – Metronomy – Small World

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.

Author:

Music, writing, and living.

8 thoughts on “AOTM – March – Metronomy – Small World

  1. Wow. That was a write up. It took me longer to read than the album lasts!

    Where to start. Guy, you were pretty offended that I don’t have a history with this band … but I simply don’t. It’s not that I tried and didn’t like them i have just never listened to them. I am not sure if i could name a track by them before listening to them. I know the name of English Riviera. That album was everywhere but somehow it still managed to pass me by. At the time i simply didn’t want to listen to British synth pop. If David is the ‘Pop Being’ of the pod, I am definitely the ‘morose, miserable bastard being’ so bright, jangly British pop isn’t on the top of my usual list.

    As always, I made a point of going in, going in strong and with the most open of minds possible. I listened to this 3 times straight first time I listened to it. I probably listened to it, start to finish 10 times in the first 3 days, i’ve listened to it at least once straight through every day since it’s release. Guy, I’ve committed as much as I could.

    So let’s cut to the chase, this doesn’t do much for me. i don’t dislike it at all. i really don’t. There are some things i really like. The production is next level, it sounds close to perfect in headphones. The crispness of the percussion, bongos and congos particularly, is something that i could nerd out on for some time. Strings squeaks, particularly the bass strings squeaks are little beautiful remnants that make me feel that this, despite its short run time has been laboured over. I love that the album starts with a downbeat opener and then bangs into the two radio friendly pop tracks. i think thats a really brave and knowing decision. in fact, i think Life and Death is my favourite track. I also like the more adventurous tracks (is this right? perhaps I mean ‘less Metronomy-like’) like ‘Loneliness on the Run’ and ‘i lost my mind’. Also the female duet on ‘Hold me Tonight’ is not only standout but happens at just the right time in the sequencing of the album. Some of the lyrics are great, really heartfelt, personal and at times amusing. As I am writing this i am thinking, perhaps i like this more than i think i do?

    i refuse to list a load of things i don’t like about this because there isn’t a long list, or even a short list (but don’t get me started on Love Factory). I genuinely don’t know what else to write to be honest. its a brief, crisp, perfectly polite, exploration of getting older.

    1. This isn’t short! I just banged on way too much, but Jesus I’ve agonised over the whole album too.

      And for the record, I’m not remotely offended about anything mate. I just misremembered that we were all into the band, but it’s not a stretch to say they aren’t in your wheelhouse. I’d wager I could do a playlist for you from their albums that would be up your street.

      But this album is very restrained, for them, and I think that is going to miss a lot of zip that many love them for. Me? I love the direction. It’s never not interesting, but I get I’m a fanboy..

      I’m digging the tracks you like, and agree that Hold Me Tonight really just *works*. I’m going to enjoy picking your brains on Love Factory. It’s a bloody joy, but wouldn’t it be boring if we all agreed?

  2. Another great write up Guy, it’s nice that you’re getting to bring this album to the table knowing how much of a fan you are.

    As for my fandom for Metronomy I sit firmly between the super-fandom of yourself and David and Joey’s knowing of them but never fully getting into them.

    Brother David bought me the English Riviera when it was released and I was blown away. It was so refreshing when it was released. It was, and still is almost a perfect album to me. It was familiar but original. It had and still has so many elements that I love.

    Following albums have all been purchased and have had varying results on me. Summer of 08 had some remarkable songs on it though also suffered (in my opinion) with a few too many fillers. I initially struggled with Love Letters, but it grew on me with time. Metronomy Forever was the most extreme to get into of the four albums that I own, but still had some great highlights.

    There’s something to be said about the impact that the English Riviera had on me as I’ve stuck with Metronomy and their (or his/Joe Mount’s) musical journey. I really respect Mount and his ever evolving sound and albums. They haven’t always bowled me over but he always has the Godfather effect on me; gives you just enough to pull you back in. I’ve not read anything about this album, nor his approach (except just reading Guy’s write up) before writing my initial thoughts. Based on my past experiences with Meronomy albums I wanted to go in cold.

    My initial thoughts are that this is the most accessible Metronomy album since ER, though it is almost too accessible. The forementioned exclusion of the Metronomy synth sound by Guy was heavily noticed on my first listens though as the albums sat on repeat I seemed to think about that point less with each listen.

    The unmistakable groove and build of ‘The Look’ as is the edginess of ‘Old School’ are missing on this album. Instead Small World tends to sound more Radio 2 than 1 or 6 Music. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. People and bands evolve and get older (though I still refuse to listen to Radio 2 personally).

    ‘Things Will Be Fine’ gives me vibes of a well-polished Father John Misty. ‘It Feels Good To Be Back’ is the song that first caught my ear and rightfully so was picked as the albums lead off single. ‘Right On Time’ brings me back to the feels of the ER album.

    I still need cut my teeth on the deeper aspects of the album and the points that Guy has highlighted. I look forward to where I get to ahead of recording the pod as well as where everyone else gets to with the album.

  3. That’s quite the write-up Guy. I almost feel bad even trying to add to it!

    I’ve waited a while to respond because, in all honesty, it’s taken me a while to work out what I make of this record. As you rightly point out, I’m an ENORMOUS Metronome fan – I think they’re one of the finest bands of the last 15 years, and have an incredible back catalogue. I do also think they can be a frustrating band at times, and for every giant slab of brilliance (The English Riviera, most of Metronomy Forever), there are underwhelming moments (I really don’t like Love Letters at all, it’s a mess, and Summer 08 is a frustrating record, because half of it is INCREDIBLE and half of it is filler). Partly, Joe Mount sets such high standards for himself as a songwriter, it’s ridiculous he can hit them all the time.

    So what to make of Small World? It’s an apt title, reflecting both thematic shifts in Mount’s lyrics (parenthood, marriage, getting older) and also perhaps a smallness of ambition in the record. This isn’t a barnstorming album pushing the band’s sound forward. Neither is it a crazy leftfield step that doesn’t work, but at least he was trying to do something different (as I think Love Letters was). It’s just….well, it’s just nice. Really nice. Very very very very nice. And I’m a bit shocked, because that wasn’t something I think I’d ever think about a Metronomy album.

    It’s beautifully produced, a proper headphones album and I’ve very much enjoyed walking the streets in the end of winter/beginning of Spring giving it a whirl. It’s very easy to consume and all the songs are immediate and bright and stuck in your head in no time.

    But – and of course there was one coming – is that it? Again, the first time I’ve ever felt that way about a Metronomy record. It feels safe, both lyrically and musically. Nolan mentions Radio 2 and that might seem a bit unfair, but actually, the singles really could sit on the R2 playlist without any problem. Perhaps Joe is, in the words of someone we all know very well, Losing His Edge. Certainly, I just can’t hear any edge, and Metronomy always had SO much edge. Their excellent previous album, Metronomy Forever, has plenty of edgy songs that live in that thrilling place that the best Metronomy songs sit – somewhere between making sense and feeling wonky and out of place.

    I don’t think it helps that the lyrical themes don’t stray far from the same sentiments. It’s Good To Be Back, Things Will Be Fine & Right On Time almost feel like an extension of the same song, both musically and lyrically. The chord sequences are pop standards, they feel comfy and familiar, and the lyrics do the same. That’s all well and good, but after the 15th listen, you end up not feeling that much. The 2 singles, that I initially loved, have begun to wear on me a little. Loneliness Is Always On The Run runs out of steam. Love Factory is verging on naff and uses a weird metaphor that just doesn’t work on any level!

    That’s not to say the album doesn’t have some real highlights. I Lost My Mind has a lovely Hunky Dory era Bowie feel, all acoustic guitar and plinky piano and angular chards and it might be my favourite track on the album. The duet with the Porridge Radio singer is really cool and it makes a nice change in the flow of the album. Closing track I Have Seen Enough musically channels late 60s/early 70s Gainsbourg (trust me on this one, LOL!), and so obvs I’m going to love it. In fact, I think the 2nd half of the album is significantly better than the first.

    So what to make of my beloved Metronomy on the back of this release? Well, it’s certainly another chapter in their history, and one that kind of makes sense. But to me, it stops of feeling essential, and that’s a bit of a shame.

    A last thought on Metronomy, and one I’d like to get into on the pod – the tension between Joe Mount as band leader and sole songwriter, and the rest of the band. I’ve followed drummer Anna Prior on Twitter for years, and she’s very careful about what she tweets, but I have sometimes got the impression that Mount makes unilateral decisions about the band on his own. I remember him once announcing that Metronomy weren’t touring any more, and she barely hid the fact that he hadn’t even told the rest of the band.

    I noticed him tweeting about him practising drum patterns for recording, and I found myself thinking – mate, are you not even using this amazing band to help make these songs? To be clear, Metronomy are FUCKING INCREDIBLE live, and that’s partly because they have got the best rhythm section in the business – Anna Prior on drums and Olugbenga Adelekan on bass are so tight, so inventive and so brilliant. The whole band are. Maybe if Mount’s creative juices are running a bit dry, he could start treating the band as creative equals and see what comes out of a more collaborative approach?

    Metronomy, it’s always good to have you back, but Small World is a Mixed Bag.

  4. Eventually listened, a really great unpicking of this album (and previous) – think I’m generally similar to David etc. on the view it’s good but nowhere near the same depth as others. Just like Guy this band fits snugly behind LCD/Hot Chip in terms of my fave bands/live gigs, I’ve loved everything they have done. I really enjoyed the album and the fact it was less synth driven. I have to say I prefer Michaels last two NZCA Lines albums to this one, but it’s Metronomy so still great.

    1. Lovely stuff Mark, thanks for replying mate. It’s really lovely you took the time to listen and come on here to tell us how you found the episode. It means everything to have that!

      I’m not sure there’s many Metronomy fiends like me around, but I can’t wait to see them live in a few weeks. It is definitely a real Hot Chip/LCD nexus for sure. Wish you were down the front with me too, but we’ll do it again…. And you’ve made me realise that I need to dig back into NZCA lines because they have always been good. I know @pauladdersonmecom was a big fan back in the day, and still is!

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