I didn’t quite know what to make of Synthetica after first listen, so I went downtown in search of my Wise Hipster Friend Socrates. After searching the fair-trade coffee shops and farmer’s market booths, I went to the third most likely place he would be: the local indie record store. I found him browsing a selection of imported Pekka Pohjola LPs from the early ‘80s (Though none of them could quite match up to his 1979 triumph, Visitation, he would later tell me.) He noticed me straight away and greeted me heartily.
Socrates: Ah, Harrison! Fancy meeting you here!
Harrison: Meeting you was my reason for coming here, Socrates. I wonder what you could tell me about that new Metric record, Synthetica. I don’t know what to make of it.
Socrates: Funny you should ask me about Synthetica, for the day before yesterday all the Local Independent Fair-Trade Artisan Cafés ran out of soy milk for my usual half-caff soy latte, so I elected to forgo my coffee and walk to the used book store down the street. On my way, I crossed paths with good old Euthyphro, and he said to me:
“Ah, Socrates! What persuades you to leave your usual haunts in the Local Independent Fair-Trade Artisan Cafés and come out to the street? Are you by chance on your way to the record store?”
“No, Euthyphro,” I replied, “I was on my way to the used book store. Is it honestly so goddamn hard to get a half-caff soy latte around here?”
“Well, you know, the price of soy-”
“But enough about me. What business have you at the record store, Euthyphro?”
“I was going there to pick up that new Metric album, Synthetica. I just listened to the online stream. It’s really rocking!”
“Well, I suppose I’ll have to check it out. What’s it called, again?”
“Wasn’t that the name of that black metal album everyone was buzzing about last year?”
“No, Socrates. That was Aesthethica, by Liturgy. An album over which, I admit, I may have gotten a bit overexcited. For what it’s worth, though, it had a singular vision and purpose behind it, even if it was a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo.”
“Overexcited? Do you tend to get so excited about new music, my dear Euthyphro?”
“Well, yes, Socrates. Music is my life, so I say. And we, as experts in the independent music field, must get excited about what’s new in order to uncover the next big thing, you know?”
“And Synthetica is the next big thing?”
“No, Metric were already the next big thing, like, ten years ago. After a band becomes the next big thing, we can get excited whenever they release a new album. That way, we maximize our excitement intake.”
“Well, let’s hope you’re not getting too excited over Synthetica.”
“I’m not, Socrates. Synthetica is a fantastic record.”
“Then perhaps you can tell me what it’s all about. What does Synthetica mean?”
“Well, it’s- it’s like, looking in the mirror, you know, and looking at yourself, and being true to what you are and stuff, like- like knowing what’s real and what’s artificial and stuff, you know?”
“It’s about distinguishing the real from the artificial, you say? So, if I can look at a football field and tell if it’s covered in real grass and not artificial turf, the album’s about that?”
“Not strictly in that sense, I don’t think. It’s more about, um- knowing whether someone is really what they say they are, and not just a phony, you know?”
“Ah! Distinguishing genuine persons from those who pretend: a truly hard-hitting and original message, my dear Euthyphro.”
“Oh, totally. Like- okay, there’s this one song ‘Artificial Nocturne,’ which kinda sounds like Evanescence, but that’s okay, because Emily Haines comes out all defiant and confident and she’s like ‘I’m just as fucked up as they say.’”
“Fucked up? Who says Emily Haines is fucked up?”
“Well, you know, the Establishment! You know how the Man thinks creative and innovative rock music like Metric’s is the music of the Devil? Well, that’s who she’s talking about. That’s who she’s fighting, the people who keep putting out the same boring, cookie-cutter pop hits day after day!”
“Do you remember exactly what ‘the Establishment’ said?”
“Well, I- maybe they didn’t exactly say anything, but you know they think it!”
“But she says she’s as fucked up as they say, not as fucked up as they think.”
“Yeah- well, okay, maybe she is making things up a bit there…”
“But the rest of the lyrics are great, right?”
“Well, there’s a lot of kinda clichéd and heavy-handed stuff about ‘needing an entrance to escape into the dark,’ ‘making what I believe,’ and daylight-as-floodlight symbolism, and a possible second verse is eschewed in favor of repeating the first verse a couple times… Okay. So maybe ‘Artificial Nocturne’ isn’t the greatest track, but ‘Youth Without Youth’ is a tight anthem about rebellion that rides this killer guitar hook.”
“Oh! Like, rebellion against the mainstream music industry?”
“No, not really. Emily Haines said it’s about ‘the decaying social state through the eyes of a depraved child.’ But the child’s like a rebel, you know, who has sex with people behind the church as a symbolic gesture.”
“So it’s neither about the real versus the artificial, nor about artists versus record companies, conflicts which I believe you maintain are central to Synthetica’s meaning.”
“Well, I- maybe.”
“Come now, Euthyphro. ‘Maybe’ is neither a yes nor a no.”
“Well, it- No! Yes! See, because the depraved child is a metaphor for Metric, and the Church is like a metaphor for the major labels, maybe.”
“Yes! I mean yes! The ‘Decaying Social State’ she talks about must be that of the music industry! That’s got to be it, I mean, there’s a lot of other songs about it. Like, ‘Breathing Underwater’ is about how artists can feel suffocated by the fakeness that surrounds them. ‘Lost Kitten’ is about the abusive relationship artists willingly put themselves through when they sign to a major label. ‘Synthetica’ is a confident statement of Metric’s own bona fideness as artists. ‘Dreams So Real’ is about, uh, dreams that are so real…”
“Yes, of course, I follow your interpretation well. Now, you’re a writer, aren’t you, Euthyphro?”
“It is my best feature.”
“In your expert opinion, what would you say makes a good metaphor?”
“Well, as my mentor told me, a good metaphor should be evident and universally recognizable by one’s readership. A metaphor shouldn’t leave any room for misinterpretation, especially a misinterpretation that could derail one’s entire narrative.”
“And you initially failed to recognize the brilliant artist versus recording industry metaphor that you now claim characterizes Synthetica, remember?”
“Well, metaphors can take a while to interpret… But after that there’s no mistake.”
“But Euthyphro, you found brilliant metaphors before, didn’t you, when you talked to me about that Magnetic Fields record a couple months ago?”
“I did, and I stand by them.”
“And then Stephin Merritt himself said in a later interview that there were no such metaphors written into the album, did he not?”
“He did, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
“Tell me, Euthyphro, do you see the metaphors because they are there, or are the metaphors there because you see them?”
“I can’t tell you that, Socrates. I see what I see and hear what I hear.”
“Then tell me instead: What would someone think of Synthetica if they were never to discover the same brilliant narrative thread that you have?”
“Well, they might think that it’s overblown, that Emily Haines tries and fails to wear the ‘promiscuous rebel’ personality she affects here; that the album speaks to a state of things that nobody can relate to, and thus says nothing at all; that the melodies lack memorability, and sometimes lack a discernible chorus entirely; and that despite a guest appearance by Lou Reed, fans will be left asking ‘Old World Metric, Where Are You Now?’”
“Wait, Lou Reed guests on this album?”
“Yes, Socrates, but it’s only one line on one track-”
“I don’t care. Show me where it is. I’m buying it. Now, what if you were to argue that Synthetica was a sort of postmodern meta-commentary on the nature of-”
At that point I’d had enough of Socrates re-enacting a previous conversation to me in public, and took my leave, with more questions than I had brought with me and exactly zero answers. If I want to know whether Synthetica bears repeat listens, I figured, I’ll just let a music review on the internet tell me.
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