The album art for U.K. indietronica group Metronomy’s ninth LP, Small World, looks like it was plucked from the canvases of Claude Monet, an aspirational portrait of halcyon days. It’s a fitting visual for a record that deals almost exclusively in simple pleasures, not elevating the mundane but reveling in it.
After a career spanning three decades, the mellowed-out understatedness of Small World is a welcome switch for Metronomy. In plague times, their urbane, bombastic club grooves that scored in the early 2010s have gradually lost their sheen. Despite the group’s well-worn dance-pop slant, it’s not afraid to dive into uncharted territory on this latest project, engaging a topical and resonant tension between positivity and cynicism — a dichotomy that with every passing day seems less oppositional.
Frontman Joseph Mount crafts some of his most personal lyrics on the record, a clear divergence from the abstract tenor of previous projects. The first track, “Life and Death,” distills life’s latticelike complexity to its two bookends. Mount muses, rather than frets, over the existential: “Got a job, had some kids/ See you in the abyss,” he sings wryly. When everything previously perceived as immutable and secure has suddenly been upended, what is there to do but joke about it?
“Love Factory” features some of the record’s stickiest melodies. It’s a bobbing jaunt that takes to heart — more diligently than any other track — the small world ethos. Quotidian joys are endowed with an earnest significance and comfort: “Let’s go see a movie/ Let’s buy a brand-new car/ Let’s climb the highest mountain range.”
By taking pleasure in what’s been taken for granted, the track renews appreciation for old relationships. “Her love is like a factory (She’s so industrious!)/ And everyday she’s making me,” Mount repeatedly intones. It is, admittedly, one of the record’s triter refrains, but there’s also something endearing about the metaphor’s breezy doltishness.
“I Lost My Mind,” however, inverts the blithe optimism that dominates the first half of the album. Yet, it is less anxious and melancholic than it is in a state of confusion. “Think I wrote down a little note/ Swear I met some funny blokes/ But I can’t find what I wrote,” Mount sings. Immediately following this rupture in mood, Metronomy hits its assured and sanguine stride again with “Right on Time” and later “Hold Me Tonight.”
Rounding out a sparse nine-track record, Mount once again gets existential on the closer “I Have Seen Enough.” The titular refrain sung over and over unspools in an almost eerie modulated lower register. At first, it appears nihilistic, but he very quickly veers away from reckless abandon and toward familiarity. “To nutshell it, it’s about just enjoying and appreciating what you have around you,” Mount said in reference to the track in an interview with Apple Music.
Metronomy bills the record as “Finding appreciation in nature and our roots, while reappraising the things we value as we get older are all things that are part and parcel of the human experience.” While a Rousseauian return to the pastoral and the homestead feels like a natural vibe for pandemic art to take on, it is one that — almost two years in — begins to feel played out. It’s also a motif that has been explored much more saliently on projects such as Big Thief’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, a record that is able to confer this idea without bashing its listeners over the head.
For a group whose sound is truly idiosyncratic, the album’s departure from its signature eclecticism and embrace of a simplistic, pared-down aesthetic is not always as successful in execution as it is in concept. Or perhaps, the creation of art that simply mirrors uncertain times and draws truisms about what makes life meaningful isn’t enough to make it interesting.