Metric watches a ton of anime. I have no idea if that’s true, but it feels true, and that’s the theme of this piece. Their music takes place in a world of frenetic action, cut with weariness and overlaid with an iridescent sheen. It’s a world where you might sit down in a bar and hear a woman tell you, “Can you hear my heart beating like a hammer?” Or you might meet a child soldier who “thinks falling bombs are shooting stars sometimes, but doesn’t make wishes on them.” You might buy a ticket and walk into a stadium, only to find that the entertainment is a Boschian battle of people and angels and animals, and then the kiss cam is on you, and it’s captioned “BET YOU THOUGHT YOU COULD JUST WATCH!” Their music is an expanded universe.
I’m from the ‘90s, and I’ve seen enough anime to know that it’s not all action inside that shimmering box. But what I mean is the big names of my youth, your Evangelions, your Utenas, your Cowboy Bebops. Art anime for a mainstream audience, playing different registers of the same minor-key tune.
These are shows about fighting hard and feeling bad. The register of Evangelion is flat-out “depression,” while the register of Cowboy Bebop is more like “being bummed out.” Someday I’ll write an essay about the register of Utena. Shorthand for now: it feels like being trapped in an old-fashioned elevator that’s shaking uncontrollably, with funny cartoons on a monitor inside. Utena is anxiety, it’s action, it’s fighting your way forward because that’s less scary than confronting what’s at your back (cf. Evangelion’s ominous theme song: “Someday, boy, you’ll learn to appreciate all that you’ve got behind you”).
Metric’s work is also about being chased, as well as bummed out. It’s Faye Valentine drawing the outline of her childhood home in the dirt and lying down in it; it’s Utena and Anthy exchanging crisp words about Italian poisons in their silent, starlit room.
To that point, there are a lot of settings in Metric songs. In “The Wanderlust,” from their 2012 masterpiece Synthetica, singer Emily Haines is “in a high-rise on my own/looking out on a mirrored balcony.” (Lou Reed is also present on “The Wanderlust”; he sounds like he’s following Haines around and halfheartedly trying to get her attention.) The narrator of “Satellite Mind,” paranoid and horny and disdainfully obsessed with her neighbor, is in an apartment we don’t see, but can smell. “I’m not suicidal,” she explains, businesslike. “I just can’t get out of bed.” We know the apartment’s got a ceiling, because she stares at it. It’s got a wall, because she can hear him fuck through it. She speaks of “coming home ‘cause I want to,” but I’m not sure that’s proof it has a door.
Metric’s many albums have different palettes, but there’s one unified vibe. It’s the kind that people describe as “shimmery,” and I faithfully replicate the usage here, even though I try not to repeat my adjectives. Despite my focus on bummers in Metric’s music, the songs are often fast, usually sonically brimming with different kinds of noise. The color palette is neon. And the most enticing thing in the world is fantasy.
Metric called their other masterpiece Fantasies, and it deals with the theme on every song (Metric are an explicit band). “Gold Guns Girls” is about a James Bond-type guy who finds that “all the gold and the guns in the world couldn’t get you off.” The unwilling heroine of “Blindness” complains that “you gave me a life I never chose,” says “I want to leave, but the world won’t let me go,” but finds herself gearing up for a mission anyway, asking for a blindfold, a blade, a trapdoor, and a plane. Is she a knight? An astronaut? A spy? None of that matters; a fantasy is a mood given brief and shining flesh.
The album is soaked in an atmosphere of urgency — soaked in it like a red dye, soaked in it like a person in a zero-G training pool, a person with their head held underwater. Every song is a climactic episode. Beyond a certain point, they’re incompatible with reality, and reality can’t read them. Even the straightforward love song “Twilight Galaxy” becomes a fantastical story — as Haines’ voice swells ecstatically into “I’ve seen all the demons that you’ve got,” you see the couple in a burning building, on a doomed ship.
I’m not sure Metric approves of fantasies, even as they write of assorted night soldiers, hunting and hunted. (This reminds me of my Brothers in Arms piece a few weeks ago, but where Dire Straits are daddishly obsessed with war, you know that Metric’s conflicts are undeclared.) I don’t have a lot of textual evidence for this disapproval, but I have vibes. Most of their heroes are reluctant ones. Part of the fantasy in many songs is being made to be a hero, as if there’s no virtue in wanting to be one. (“Babe, I have to take the call,” agonizes the narrator of “Artificial Nocturne”; “Fate, don’t fail me now.”)
Metric are, in general, a puritanical band, and at their worst they can be sour. You brace yourself when you sense that they’re about to make a social point. Haines has a solo song where she riffs on the phrase “the things you own, they own you” for four minutes. I am scared to death that the title banger of Synthetica is about how psychiatric meds are for losers (“I can think for myself/I've got something no pill could ever kill”). That’s why I suspect they disapprove of their favorite topic; fantasies are too hedonistic, too much fun, for a person who sees life as a mission. “Everybody just wants to fall in love,” they complain in “Sick Muse,” “everybody just wants to play the lead.”
Whatever ideas and anxities underlie it, Metric’s body of work is dazzling. The energy of these albums drives them hard; this is music that needs to keep moving, or it will collapse. But that’s not a sin. There are many kinds of genius, and Metric’s lies in fleeing without arriving.
(image credit: Utena episode 37.)