Desert of the Surreal
Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?
There's a tarpaper-and-plywood watering hole just outside of Mosul. It's 2006 and 106° in the shade. Bush finagled a second term and reinstated the draft to replenish the occupational forces, and now even Canadian ex-pat hipsters in L.A. are getting blackmailed into this new operation, while college-educated young people have to enter the service, since most of the new positions over there are administrative in nature, the opposite of Vietnam. Metric is the house band in this prefab, sand-blown venue, where cheap Afghani heroin is traded in the back for cases of Stella Artois and everyone's wearing chic camouflage miniskirts and they even have a copper bar like the one at Brownie's in New York.
Metric exist in a demilitarized zone somewhere between Electric Six's "nuclear war on the dance floor" and Gang of Four's cultural war with disco backbeat. On their new album, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (Enjoy Records), they're at least as concerned with sarcastic dancing as the former and at least as obsessed with commodity culture and actual dancing as the latter. But their bleak worldview is a step removed from Greil Marcus's characterization of Go4 as the "ordinary person struggling to make sense of his or her life." Here, there's little struggle, because Metric's dance floor is an island cut off from the forces that put its inhabitants there in the first place. The soundless CNN broadcast in the adjacent bar is just another strobe light. There's only frustration and a moat of velvet ropes beyond which the walls drunkenly dissolve in blackness.
It takes a certain artistic intellect to construct such vividly blank characters and situate them in such a thoroughly vapid milieu (much less make it enjoyable to listen to). Blondie, who are Metric's precursors in spirit and instrumentation, managed to out-punk punk itself through their flirtation with disco beats and slick diva-isms, unwittingly extending punk's critique beyond its own marginalized clubhouse while providing dance music for some, a sense of cultural vindication for others, and jack-off pinups for the rest.
Like Debbie Harry's before her, Emily Haines's lyrics are deceptively smart, embodying dilapidated youth culture while simultaneously refuting it. In "Combat Baby," she's a seething Goth dowager who understands neither love nor war, only the metaphors used to describe one in terms of the other. Haines's deftly controlled vocalizing makes the spurned lover's desperation real, and the clichéd pop lyric banalities that entrap her ("I want to paint it black/I want to get around") only amplify the frustration in her plea for her wayward lover to return from the front, or maybe to it. She can't communicate, and "combat baby" dissolves into "come back, baby," as she loses her identity to the rock- lyric hall of mirrors that once reflected her but has now subsumed her. It's an understanding of American fallowness that goes beyond contempt or empathy but, thankfully, doesn't attempt to draw any conclusions or make the obvious any more obvious.
Metric pulls off subtleties like this by way of a nimble songwriting conservatism: They recognize that they're a pop band, and as such their mission isn't to destroy or even subvert structure but, in the best case, to use its own rules to pull the rug out from under you, to make you hit the floor, blinking toward the ceiling with the taste of carpet in your mouth. Like the Strokes, Metric have ghost choruses, moments where the hooks crest and you think that surely this is the resolution the music has wanted up to now. Then the real chorus touches down about two-and-a-half minutes into the song in a tsunami of slashing, Chris Stein-esque guitar and untethered vocals (as in their anti-PR-man rant "The List"), and that's when you realize that this band has barely opened their party bag of tricks. There's a similar antilogic in "Wet Blanket," where they set up an outro groove whose gravity could drag other bands into a slow fade-out. Instead, we're suddenly torn from the terra firma by a deus ex machina of words and synth, then effortlessly deposited back into the first verse as though we never left it, like the farmer waking up to find his bed in a cornfield.
There are some moments on the record that have the preciousness of a Whit Stillman film ("Every 10-year-old enemy soldier/ Thinks falling bombs are shooting stars sometimes"), but this minor prolixity is mostly forgivable. When real war becomes televised metaphor, sometimes you have to think like a bad poet to try to make sense of it. And dance, if at all possible.
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