Theoretically, a band should pinnacle with its third record, perfecting the sound that was debuted on their first and reinforced by their second. The fourth record, then, would need to offer a significant change, or else things could get stuck in neutral. That pitfall isn’t the exact issue with Love Letters, Metronomy’s fourth record, but in a twisted way, it’s both better and worse. The ambient-pushing, underproduced, love-awkward texture of Love Letters actually works perfectly for artistic irony when applied to the concept of stationary love, although this awkwardness doesn’t always come across as a premeditated concept. And although frontman Joseph Mount pointed out his very intentional desire for an element of underproduction, how much more was there really to it other than to not “be like Coldplay”?
From the eerie wordlessness and eclectic glitch of debut album Pip Paine (Pay the £5000 You Owe) to the fleshed-out confidence of The English Riviera and its excellent vocal introduction (“Heartbreaker”), charting hits (“The Look”, “The Bay”), lyrically strong choruses, and innovative synthpop instrumentation, Metronomy’s three albums highlight the group’s anything-but-metronomic tendencies. Composer/guitarist/vocalist Mount, along with bandmates Anna Prior, Oscar Cash, and Olugbenga Adelekan, hit that frustrated, stagnating tone early on Love Letters with “I’m Aquarius”, a cutesy, atmospheric love story conflicted by apathy and astrological fate. Mount transitions from “Cause you’re a novice and/ I’m a Taurus and/ I’m not gonna say/ I’m not gonna do” to 18 repetitions of “I’m Aquarius,” as the latter third of the song pans out in sync with continuous “shoo doop doop ah”s.
Beyond the track’s lyrics, there’s not much that strengthens “I’m Aquarius”: Metronomy, here and in the other two tracks of the opening trio (“The Upsetter” and “Monstrous”), seem to have employed the most mechanical, consistent, even boring sounds for the group to date, almost voluntarily shooing away what made The English Riviera a lasting record. Gone is the funk-injected indie and synthpop that, for the first time, seemed to actually reflect a multi-instrumented four-piece band. Lyrically, however, the track is quite fascinating. Mount projects his broken-heartedness to contradictions in the stars. An online Taurus and Aquarius love compatibility test highlights the two signs’ very distinctive tendencies, from Taurus’s “practical, down-to-earth approach to life” to Aquarius’s “unconventional, out-of-this-world approach to just about anything.” Putting both signs into a first-person voice, Mount early on makes the symbology of Love Letters a confusing task and layers it with loads of semi-coherent, intellectualized business, the sort of failed sentiments and “love letters” that Mount has written about in each song.
Second single “Love Letters”, on the other hand, shines as the record’s most robust-sounding track. After a minute of melancholy trumpeting, Prior belches out “Love letters” atop a smooth synth, bass, and drumbeat, while Mount sings intermittently, “I’ll keep on writing/ You’ve got me writing.” The blandness of going back and forth between the two vocalists wittily plays on the theme, repeating these words often enough so that they become desensitized, in perhaps an artistic attempt to grant love letters, or moreover, the concept of love itself, a feeling of meaninglessness beyond interpretation. Is there supposed to be anything more to this track than demystification? To the album? Regardless of its great sonic quality, the song elicits little answer.
These two sides to Love Letters play out to a lesser depth throughout the rest of the record. “Boy Racers” has the record’s most innovative and funky bass line, but lacks any of the lyrical punch Metronomy has come close to perfecting. “Call Me”, although accompanied by a lovely piano, is “Love Letters” without any of the Metronomy pop. “The Most Immaculate Haircut” features Mount putting his lyrical and vocal talents to their best use, singing lighthearted, teenage lyrics with immense heartfelt sentimentality: “He’s got the most immaculate haircut/ And with the right dye and shampoo, maybe I could too.” The track, however, reaches an ambient, quiet centerpiece droop that would have been better suited for a sped-up burst of guitar.
This isn’t to say that Metronomy can’t do non-synthpop. There’s a lot of experimentation going on here; there’s a great duality to this record when in conversation with Pip Paine, although the two fall into completely different genres. With a few exceptions, Love Letters is a mostly unfortunate attempt to recreate the atmosphere of musically personified love letters wittily laid out in first single “I’m Aquarius”. Knowing the group’s usual proclivities, however, Metronomy must have many more experimental ideas to sift through before settling down with any one particular sound, just failing to come up with a compelling, powerful way to tell this story.
Essential Tracks: “I’m Aquarius”, “Love Letters”, and “The Most Immaculate Haircut”