Life is beautiful. The world is cruel. Music still matters. Metric have wrestled with these truths for 15 years, but their new album, Pagans in Vegas, takes them on in an entirely new way.
Six LPs into an inspiring career that's seen them collaborate with legends like Lou Reed, perform with the Rolling Stones, entertain the Queen of England, become the first band in history to score their first Top 20 commercial radio hit in the U.S. without the backing of an outside label, win a plethora of awards including Junos for Album of the Year and Artist of the Year, pen the theme song for Twilight: Eclipse with Howard Shore (for which the music garnered nominations for both an Oscar and a Grammy), release an interactive app directly to fans, and set up an esoteric toll-free number for their dedicated listeners to navigate the past and future of their music, Metric have their creative process on lock. But nothing about Pagans in Vegas, set for release in September 2015, came together like any other Metric record.
For starters, it was born during the band's scheduled year off, when frontwoman Emily Haines retreated to Nicaragua and found herself writing on acoustic guitar while guitarist-producer Jimmy Shaw became obsessed with his CS80 synth back home in Toronto. When it came time to start turning these explorations into an album, they turned to the band's go-to mixer, Grammy-nominated John O'Mahony, to co-produce alongside Shaw. "The songs that made it onto Pagans in Vegas weren't written with an overarching concept in mind," Shaw says. "Synthetica was about the battle between what's human and what's artificial, and integrating technology into our lives," Haines explains, referring to the band's — Haines, Shaw, bassist Josh Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key — acclaimed 2012 LP. "And with this record we were making music for the joy of it. We're still in the game as musicians and people, although the game has gotten increasingly unrecognizable to us."
Irrepressible first single "The Shade" originated in one of Shaw's daily synth jams and Haines wrote the lyrics during sessions at Oscilloscope Labs (the studio the Beastie Boys' Adam "MCA" Yauch built to record the group's later albums). "All the stuff that sucks and is beautiful — that's being alive," Haines says of the joyous anthem. "You get the sunshine and the shade, and if you're lucky you're going to feel everything."
On powerful opener "Lie Lie Lie," Haines is feeling the frustration of the pop machine, where female artists have finally returned to the fold, "but everyone is in their underwear," she explains. On trippy "Celebrate," she grapples with how the time of obliviously reveling in your own good fortune without paying any attention to what's going on around you is over. And on the alternately dark and buoyant "For Kicks," she flips the traditional breakup song on its head, singing from the perspective of the heartbreaker over a crush of synths.
In an effort to translate the gratifying experience of discovering an artist you love, Metric packed their new album with reverent references to artists who’ve inspired them, from Depeche Mode, New Order, The Cure and Underworld all the way back to Kraftwerk. Haines explains it was about finding "the romance of another time without falling into nostalgia." (The concept is also perfectly captured on the album's cover, which features a shot of Memphis' Hotel Chisca, the spot where Elvis Presley did his first broadcast interview.) But despite a few glances in the rearview, Pagans in Vegas stitches together its acoustic and synthetic foundations with a crisp, unique now-ness that captures the quandaries of life in an age where bad news is unavoidable and great art is a life-saver.
Shaw sees the album's title as an apt meditation on "people with a conscience, for better or worse, playing around in the arena of unconscionable behavior" and notes how the album skillfully blurs the lines between genres. "We tried to be as bold as possible," he says. (Shaw also takes lead vocals on "Other Side," a vibey, silky track that announces, "All we want is to feel like all we got didn't cost us everything, even if we never win.")
Before "Fortunes" explodes into a euphoric chorus, Haines sings of a world that's magical, sinister and inescapable. "The way we hang out and fall in love and enjoy life — it's the essence of what makes people human," she says of the "pagans" in the album's title. "People have been playing with stones and dice forever, creating games and music and ways to connect. We may use a different medium now, but that's still who we are."