Who would you rather be? / The Beatles or the Rolling Stones / Oh, seriously / You’re gonna make mistakes, you’re young. What’s THAT supposed to mean?
In a different era, Metric would be huge. It’s easy to imagine them as a staple of early-90s alternative radio, occupying a space somewhere between Juliana Hatfield’s straight-forward lyrics and Belly’s flights of fancy.
Not that Metric necessarily wants to be huge. This is a band that strives to maintain its indie cred, appearances on the soundtracks of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and a Twilight film notwithstanding. (Don’t expect to hear the Twilight song at one of their shows, though it’s really not bad at all.) Singer/keyboardist Emily Haines seems particularly wary of success, an admirable but sometimes self-destructive trait.
Metric’s earlier work was more abrasive and punkish, highlighted by a wry take on the musical marketplace, Dead Disco. (”Tits out, pants down, overnight to London” is an arresting lyric to start the second verse.) The album after Fantasies, Synthetica, throws listeners for a loop right off the bat, with Haines cheerily intoning ”I’m just as fucked up as they say” over a foreboding synth. In the titletrack, Haines sings: ”I’m not synthetica / I’ll keep the life that I’ve got.” If Metric ever recorded a Jagged Little Pill, they’d probably follow it up with a Self Portrait just to kill the popularity beast. Despite the central question in this song about being the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, guitarist Jimmy Shaw has quipped that he wouldn’t want to be either — one is dead and the other is corporate.
Still, in today’s fragmented market, Metric is still relatively successful. They’ve won a few Juno Awards, being (majority) Canadian. Last year, they co-headlined a Canadian tour with Death Cab for Cutie and played some huge venues.
But it’s tough for a smart band with enigmatic lyrics and a synthesizer sheen to find space on the airwaves and streams these days. ”Alternative” is a bunch of whiny dudes with guitars; ”adult alternative” is whinier dudes with softer guitars.
Female singers with feminist attitudes are better off in country music or R&B than they are in rock/pop these days, which is pretty depressing to those of us who spent our college and young adult years with Natalie Merchant and Tori Amos — or Heart, Pat Benatar and Joan Jett — echoing in our ears. (You’re welcome to claim Lorde or Lana Del Rey is today’s Sarah McLachlan, but that’s an equally depressing thought. And it would prove that Nicole Atkins, Angela Perley and Rachael Yamagata deserve wider audiences. For that matter, so does McLachlan’s recent work — she makes middle-aged lust sound a lot more appealing than Madonna does.)
So the only reason I know Metric is because I listened to a CBC stream on a whim, probably hoping they’d have curling updates, and Metric qualifies as Canadian content. Without that, I wouldn’t have been introduced to one of the best albums I’ve heard this century, Fantasies. And it all started when I heard this breathtaking song.
The sound is pleasant, with shimmering synth hooks and Emily Haines’ dreamy voice over steady eighth-note chords on guitar. (For some reason, they often play this with just voice and acoustic guitar live, which is OK but loses something.) And the lyrics are perfect for a brainy pop song, providing both immediate interest and something to ponder on repeat listens.
At songmeanings.net, where someone usually says every song is about drugs, the discussion is surprisingly thoughtful. The key question of whether you’d rather be the Beatles or the Stones can be kicked around for days. It’s not enough to answer, of course. You have to say why.
So is it a choice between a band that was brilliant for eight years and burned out vs. a band that might be more erratic but is still around? Or is she considering the Beatles’ optimism vs. the Stones’ darker take, as the Genius annotation suggests? The songs referenced here, Here Comes the Sun vs. Gimme Shelter / Sympathy for the Devil, suggest it could indeed be ”sun” vs. ”shelter.” Or ”sympathy.”
The verses sound like Flight of Icarus should be tossed into the mix as well. ”Get hot,” she starts. ”Get too close to the flame.” Haines sings of ”all the chances we took,” with a tone that’s somewhere between wistful and joyful, as if she knows those ”chances” caused her some difficulty and yet she cannot and will not regret them.
Then we have the real puzzler, repeated twice before each chorus: ”We’re so close to something better left unknown.” One of the better Genius annotations, hidden amidst the constant reminders that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are popular bands, posits this line two ways. If you’d rather be the Stones, you’re looking at this with caution, like someone playing with fire or perhaps working on the Manhattan Project. If you’d rather be the Beatles, maybe insert a comma: ”We’re so close to something better, left unknown.”
Rarely will you find such beautiful ambiguity in a song.
Metric doesn’t offer any more clues to resolve the argument. ”Oh seriously,” Haines sings, ”you’re gonna make mistakes, you’re young.” But which answer is the mistake? Maybe both?
You could interpret her call to hear something ”like Here Comes the Sun“ as a victory for the Beatles. Or you could say she’s just expressing a need to hear something optimistic after struggling with life’s grand mysteries.
Frankly, after a frustrating day, I can hardly think of a better song to hear than this one. And the pleasantly playful video takes us to a wonderful fantasy world in which Metric is played on the radio as often as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.