Music

Metric’s ‘Art Of Doubt’ Is A Seething, Feminine Rock Record For A Time Of Rage

Justin Broadbent

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“If it wasn’t for your kindness, I think I might be dead,” sings Emily Haines on the closing track off Metric’s most recent album, Art Of Doubt, “If it wasn’t for your kindness lately, I’d never get out of bed.” This final song is called “No Lights On The Horizon” and lulls into a softer, sweeter sentiment than the rest of a raging seventh record from her band. The lyrics, and the sentiment of the song echo messages that women across the country are sending each other, barely able to continue functioning under the weight of misogyny that’s currently beaming down, not just in the news cycle lately, but quite literally from the highest offices in the land.

Most of us have one safe harbor, at least, one anchor, if we’re lucky. We seek solace in each other and trusted individuals while the men who run the world debate the worth of our experiences of sexual violence at their hands (one in six women has experienced attempted or completed rape). Amid all the outcry against these hard truths, this song is a small moment of remembrance, a thankfulness for those who show up to remind us of light, even if our world stays dark. It’s a resignation after a storm, not a white flag or a victory cry, just a hymn of exhaustion, and thankfulness for what sustained us until now: Kindness.

The song comes after a wave of sprawling, sharp and searing synth-pop songs on the album more communicative of outright anger and disappointment. Yes, Art Of Doubt is a seething, feminine rock record for a time of rage, as Haines confirmed when discussing the album during the recording process. “Things are so crass, and I think that’s when people really feel like they need the nuance of art and music,” Haines said in a recent interview. “A lot of the thread of this record has been looking at what femininity is, not only as a woman, but also looking on the whole spectrum of gender as people explore where they fall within that, and what our assumptions and associations and ways that we characterize femininity and weakness and our fear of power as women and people, and people’s fear of female power, all of those things are interconnected.”

For a band that has lately called themselves “emotionally primitive,” in 2018, Metric sound especially evolved. But perhaps there wasn’t room for the ethos of a band like this to be heard and properly celebrated until a social and political climate like the one we’re immersed in now. Hearing her say those words, “fear of female power,” without flinching was a fitting reminder that Haines’ experience of this comes firsthand. They’ve said just about everything possible about Emily Haines. It’s hard to read old Metric album reviews, have you tried?

“I want to like Metric, I really do,” begins a 2005 Pitchfork review of their second record, Live It Out, wherein the reviewer goes on to dub Haines a “quaint little-girl-lost indie savant” and skewers the band’s “blunt liberal leanings” and “silly experimental excesses,” while the site’s next review chided the band for “jockeying for visibility” and dismissed their “bloat and clutter.”

It’s hard not read “pop music” between the lines of those last two critiques, a space that’s typically been reviled by proper rock fans, and certainly, seen as a place of femininity and feminization. The next review, this one for Fantasies, dubs Haines the band’s “baby-voiced heart and soul” — and that was even written by a woman. Things have changed a little in music criticism during the ensuing decade, yes, but anyone who follows Metric knows that co-founder James Shaw is too integral to the process to flat out call Haines the heart and soul.

Metric has never been a critic’s darling per se, a fact that speaks both to the nature of most critics (and their demographic) and the gap that often opens between them and the listening public, as the band has amassed a huge following over the course of their seven albums, anyway. But, wounds acquired under a patriarchy accumulate, stings like these stay, as Haines noted on the title track of last year’s solo project Choir Of The Mind: “If I could go back, if I could reach that feeling again / I would not have shit talkers stop me / Failures whisper ‘Sad, how hard she tries,” she sings on her solo album’s title track. (Of course, the title of their new record slyly refers to this process, too: “Where do failed imposters go?”)

A Canadian rock band fronted by a woman, with roots in another trendy synth-pop group, Stars, and the Broken Social Scene collective, Metric was immersed in the early 2000s indie rock world revolving around an almost mythical Brooklyn, but they never quite reached the heights of indie-fame that their one-time apartment mates, TV On The Radio or the Yeah Yeahs did. Except, maybe, until now, when those bands are both fading a bit.

The last time a record by Metric hit as hard as this new one does, it was in 2009, when the “baby-voiced” Haines was whipping around her vocals like a live wire on Fantasies. She sounded like a woman to me, then barely 21 myself, and absolutely floored by this out-of-nowhere rock album. It wasn’t like anything a label was putting out at the time. “Help, I’m alive, my heart keeps beating like a hammer,” Emily Haines howled back then, a missive that became something of a rallying cry for a suicide-riddled, anxious and depressed generation of millennials able to download every song they’ve ever loved (I’m not the only one with a treasured, bootlegged copy of “Gimme Sympathy” acoustic) but unable to maintain a healthy, loving relationship with another human.

Sweeping generalization, sure, but also something beats in the “radiant miserablism” and brutal synth-pop that Haines so skillfully wields. Infamously, the band self-released that record, and its success led them to inadvertently become a beacon for artists to strike out on their own. Which is exactly what Metric have done, once again, on this record, opting to self-release Art Of Doubt solely via their own label, Metric Music International, after having UMG involved in their last release (2015’s Pagans In Vegas) and before that indie stalwarts Mom + Pop on the Fantasies follow-up, 2012’s Synthetica. Perhaps the lack of interference is why this album is a full-fledged return to rock, or maybe it was Haines clearing her palette of any softer leanings by releasing that solo record in 2017 — her first in over a decade.

Either way, from the frenetic lead single “Dark Saturday” all the way through the coda/benediction of “No Lights On The Horizon,” this record instantly joins the ranks of the best rock albums released in 2018. (And the twin punch of Fantasies and Art Of Doubt might be the most impressive argument I’ve ever heard for artists to self-release their music.) One key shift for this record was moving Shaw, a critical band member, away from production duties and getting him and his guitar back into a prominent place back in the mix. Relieving him of his duties was the storied producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, perhaps best known for his work with Nine Inch Nails and M83, and he brings an enormity to the songs without erasing any of their catchy, melodic elements. On Twitter, Meldal-Johnsen dubbed the album a “wild, rich, technicolor menagerie” the day it came out, which is a succinct, dead-on review.

But what his description misses is the powerful and empowering undercurrent of anger that courses through this album like fuel in an engine that didn’t know it was failing. This is best exemplified on the second single, “Dressed To Suppress,” where ethereal vocals give way to buzzy, wailing drums and supercharged riffs, mimicking a shift between what’s on the surface and what lies beneath.

The title track, too, holds tight to one line of defiant refrain in the face of a wall of disappointment, a call and response for a time of rage: “Don’t let your heart give out / No I won’t let my heart give out.” This song even veers into full-on screamed vocals, a heaviness that comes as a relief when it peaks. Haines is in full possession of her power, without a trace of fear about how it will be perceived, she’s plowing away in the same industry that has repeatedly tried to tear her down, letting her heart beat on, letting kindness sustain her.

Clocking in at just twelve tracks — a short album in a streaming era that breeds excess — other highlights are the surging, depression anthem geared toward repair, “Now Or Never Now,” and “Underline The Black,” a song that uses a makeup act as a metaphor for taking stock of the past. While the rockists crew may forever lament the way Metric leans into the sensibilities of pop, it’s a delight to hear the glistening, sardonic “la la las” of “Love You Back” sidled up next to an enormous guitar riff, or the inescapable earworm “Die Happy” that confetti-explodes into a chorus skewering fame and the culture surrounding it. Or there’s my personal favorite, “Risk,” which evokes some of the structure on another old beloved deep cut off Fantasies, “Sick Muse,” but spills into its own massive, synthy breakdown about the peril and chance of letting yourself fall for someone.

Each track here is another potential bullet in a velvet chamber, weaponized synth-pop with a purpose that doesn’t feel the need to divorce from its rock roots. Most importantly, these are songs written by a woman, a 43-year-old woman at that, about her pain and rage, about her anger and love and frustration and delight. They give voice to so many experiences that are singular to the life of a woman, and they do so on terms so enormous that the world will feel their impact for years after this record, which feels like the fullest expression of Metric that we’ve ever heard. To be seven albums in and still making that kind of progress — detractors be damned — is the kind of example I hope more girls grow up exposed to. No lights on the horizon, sure, but there is still power in small kindnesses, the ones that help us survive another day. Even in the dark.

Art Of Doubt is out now via Metric Music International. Get it here.

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