In all honesty, I had forgotten I’d already listened to this album.
Small World, Metronomy’s seventh studio album, and first in three years, came out in February of 2022. The ‘Special Edition’ re-release comes with the original album, as well as covers of each song.
I have mixed feelings about the original album. On the one hand it feels quite different from previous albums. The arrangements are sparser, more acoustic; their signature synths (given a reduced role here) somehow feel acoustic. Thicker. Homier. To use a very old cliché – warmer. The whole album feels like morning voice. On the other, it’s more of the same thing we’ve come to expect from a new Metronomy release. Which is always a little disappointing with a band as good as they are.
Ironically then, the stand-out track for me is ‘It’s good to be back’, which also doubled as the lead single. It’s classic Metronomy: a song that feels at home on the dancefloor as well as curled up in bed whilst feeling sorry for yourself. Arpeggiators and drum machines give way to a syncopated acoustic guitar riff that immediately puts you in a good mood. But the song is melancholic, as all good British pop songs should be. Frontman and songwriter Joseph Mount lamenting feelings lost, despite being glad they’re behind him.
The song points towards the album’s thematic concerns and central metaphor. Given the period over which it was written, this feels very much like a Covid album. Throughout, Mount is pondering the mix of emotions that flip-flopping between lockdowns inherently brings. Framing this within the context of classic pop love songs is a genius idea: Covid, the ex lover we can’t quite shake off. ‘Love Factory’, for example, could simply be seen as a song about being in love with someone controlling. However, the context of Covid reframes it as about lockdown; literally kept inside for our own good.
But a clever conceit can’t disguise how samey most of the album feels. Aside from a few songs, a lot of this is simply Metronomy by numbers. Don’t get me wrong, I like the numbers. I just wish there was a greater variety of them.
The problem with Metronomy is that they perfected their formula over a decade ago with The English Riviera (it’s everything British pop music should be: inventive, sardonic, clever, and catchy as hell). Since then, each album has felt like variations on a theme; this one is funkier, this one is poppier. Even knowing and hearing the sonic differences, their albums sound too similar to ever make you go back to anything other than The English Riviera.
Hence why I forgot that I had actually listened to this album when it originally came out.
And then comes the new stuff – the covers. A lot of cover albums feel rushed and poorly thought out. Twinned with songs that aren’t quite Metronomy at their best, it seemed like a recipe for disaster. Thankfully, this is not the case. These covers are not just the original songs with different vocalists. They are complete re-workings, and most of them are brilliant.
Covers are at their best when they not only sound uniquely like the artist covering them, but also highlight the strengths of the original song. Hearing this album sung by different voices with different arrangements, you realise just how good Mount’s song writing is. Without that samey Metronomy sound marring them, they’re fantastic.
‘It’s good to be back’, one of my favourites from the original album, is reimagined by Welsh punk band, Panic Shack. The catchy vocal melody is instead given to a thin, distorted guitar, whilst the new vocal line pivots around a single note, going for attitude over tune. The result is a thrilling, Parquet Courts-esque, three minute punk song. It highlights the strength of the original lyric and album’s central metaphor of Covid as an ex we can’t quite get over.
Elsewhere, ‘Loneliness on the run’, covered by Madeem Din-Gabisi and Tony Njoku, becomes a spoken word piece over a Kid A-era Radiohead accompaniment. It’s so odd and yet works so well. The mood it evokes is eery yet intimate, and the way it opens up in the middle, as heavily delayed synths overlap and interweave with each other, is simply stunning.
‘I lost my mind’, a song I didn’t particularly care for, in Jessica Winter’s hands becomes this almost LCD Soundsystem by way of ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ kind of thing, and it’s really great. It sounds like the song Arcade Fire have been trying to write for the past ten years, but never quite getting there. The drums are tight, the bass is thick, the synths are dancing, and the vocals fantastic. I really liked this one. So much so that I immediately went out looking for her other stuff.
Which is again one of the strengths of a good covers album. It introduces you to great artists you may not have discovered otherwise. Sure, is it a little suspicious that some of these artists are also signed to Rough Trade, the label Metronomy are signed to. Maybe. But honestly, who cares if this is a marketing ploy. With output this good, I hope they keep marketing and ploying as much as possible.
That being said, not all of these covers are as successful as others. The more traditional remixes are noticeably weaker. Not that they’re bad, they just feel out of place given the strength and variety of the covers.
But overall, this re-release/’Special Edition’ of Small World is well worth the price of admission. Whilst the original album is fine, the covers more than make up for this. They highlight what a great songwriter Mount is, and provide different and interesting takes on the original material. Hopefully, Metronomy’s next album can once again match the heights of which these covers clearly show their songs are capable.
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