Long gone are the days of Metric, the sassy indie-rock quartet with downtown New York style and angular guitar riffs. After abandoning its edges for the glossier pop perfectionism of Fantasies, the group’s last effort lived up to its Synthetica title, transitioning the band into more synthpop sounds and dance-floor grooves. With Pagans In Vegas, the band has fully morphed into purveyors of slick electronic pop, music that would fit right in alongside British synth-driven acts like Depeche Mode or even The Cure. While the evolution has been steady and of a piece, early fans likely wouldn’t even recognize the artists behind this latest effort. Old world underground, where are you now, indeed.
But if you’re willing to embrace the group’s new sound, there are numerous pleasures to be found here. A steady progression of synthpop tracks, ranging from the frenetic to the nearly dirge-like, are assembled and ordered in such a way as to demonstrate that, if nothing else, the group still cares deeply about the album experience. From the stomping opener to the two-part instrumental that closes out the record, Pagans In Vegas has a strong and consistent tone, more uplifting than most of the previous work, but retaining both the lyrical skepticism and dark musicality of so much of Metric’s catalog.
It kicks off with “Lie Lie Lie,” a track that may throw fans upon first listen. With a guitar emitting a dirty country riff, it kicks off like a bluesy amble. But soon, all the familiar Metric elements start creeping in—Emily Haines’ signature repetitive vocal patter (she’s never been a prolix lyricist), handclaps, a steady kick drum—then the refrain hits, and just like that, it’s a Metric song. “Fortunes” is a fusion of minimalist electro and maximal bombast: the verses are all thin drum machines and chiming synths, while the refrain drops to half tempo and offers up a languorous vibe. It’s relaxed and mature, like a forgotten adult-contemporary track from the Reagan era. “Celebrate” also pulls off this verse-chorus musical and tempo alternating, but between Underworld-style techno and swaying overdriven bass breakdowns. From midtempo electronic rock (“For Kicks”) to the acoustic guitar that accompanies a stately drumbeat and warbling synths on “The Governess,” these tracks flow elegantly from one to the next.
But the highlight comes early, with a track that easily claims its place as one of the best pop songs of the year. “The Shade” is all arpeggiating keys and stuttering beats, a rumbling rhythm that feels propulsive even with its restrained tempo. It’s a slinky groove verse wedded to an anthemic refrain, with Haines shouting out the demands of adolescence: “Eternal love, the stars above, all there is and ever was / I want it all, I want it all,” she cries, and in the space of the soaring melody, it feels possible, which is is exactly what the best pop songs should do. The hell with “We Are Young”—this is the sound of a proper youth manifesto.
There are some unexpected surprises as well. Guitarist Jimmy Shaw takes lead vocals for the trebly and searching “The Other Side,” and his schoolboy tenor sounds so much like Craig Wedren, you’d be forgiven for assuming the ex-Shudder To Think singer made a guest appearance, à la Lou Reed on Synthetica. “The Face, Pt. I” and “The Face, Pt. II” make for an odd but satisfying close, the first half sounding like nothing so much as the long-lost score to an ’80s teen movie, and the latter as ethereal and solemn as a church organ playing a hymnal, for which it could easily be mistaken. It’s a bold and unusual choice for a closer, and testifies to the group’s stubborn need to push back against its self-imposed turn to mainstream pop. You can take the indie aesthetic out of the pop group, but you can’t take a wicked contrarian streak and disgust with easy-package commodification out of a band (and singer) who’s made a career of it.