After eight years without a proper album, the Lawrence Arms return with Metropole, a solid, often fascinating rock record hiding big questions about time and age and life in the city behind bigger slashing hooks.
It's been just about eight years since we last hear a full-length record from the Lawrence Arms. They did put out the Buttsweat and Tears EP to mark their 10th anniversary in 2009, but other than that the band has been branching out. Chris McCaughan recorded solo material under the Sundowner moniker, while Brendan Kelly made a record with his other band the Wandering Birds. Both showed nice breadth and musical flex in those other bands, but hearing Metropole it's hard not to be excited that the Lawrence Arms have circled the wagons once again. They're the kind of unpretentious, no-frills punk rock band that can be both honest and clever without making the listener feel the band's sneer is pointed at them. In fact, the sneer has softened on Metropole, not into comfort but into a more puzzled look, hiding a bigger question about time and age and life in the city.
The album is one fascinated by the passage of time, by feeling stuck, by feeling old. "You Are Here" has a train "just zipping by." McCaughan calls it a "friend," but it never stops for him. "Seventeener (17th and 37th)" finds Kelly admitting, with regret, "dying young just didn't work so I guess I'm dying old." On "Paradise Shitty," Kelly can feel the cold weather in his knee, while on "Beautiful Things" McCaughan feels too much distance from the romantic days of being "young and lost." The details may suggest they're older than they are, but the effect moves past complaint and towards questions, questions particularly relevant to punk rock, a genre particularly tied to youth. That question: We're heading towards middle age and how the hell do we do this? The other question: What does growing old in the city mean?
The band seems in search of a graceful way to ease into maturity without losing their bite, let along their teeth. What makes all this work is the way it seems framed in a particular place. The band claims inspiration from, among other things, late-'90s hip-hop, and they seemed to tie that inspiration to the city sounds that swirls around these tight rock songs. The band made field recordings of street music, rain, the din of the city, and it drifts in the background here. It gives the album a convincing cityscape, reinforced by clever detail in the lyrics, not geographical name-dropping. The effect seems less about hip-hop and more about giving this album its own sense of place, which is something the band has always been ahead of its contemporaries on. There are moments, especially the lyrical framing of "Hickey Avenue", that feel influenced by hip-hop, but Metropole seems less the product of new influences and more the natural progression of a band honing its own impressive set of sounds.
The best parts of the album break through traditional punk modes, giving us the wide-open shadowy spaces of "Paradise Shitty" or the pensive stillness that begins the title track. Other tracks, like "Seventeener (17th and 37th)" and "Hickey Avenue" are just chock full of pure, blistering hooks. As a complete set of songs, though, the album doesn't sprint past us or catch us with on-a-dime shifts the way their last two records, The Greatest Story Ever Told and Oh, Calcutta, could. The overall structure of the album as a sound bouncing through the city is excellent, though song-to-song, the album can feel uniform in a more expected way. But that said, this is still a tight 35 minutes of pure punk rock from a band making a welcome return and refusing to go back to where they were. Instead, even if they worry over being stuck in these songs, they pick up where they left off and charge forward.