Herein the age-old question: How do you follow up an eye-opening breakthrough like 2011's The English Riviera? In Joseph Mount's case, with an insular breakup album.
"I'm back out on the Riviera", Joseph Mount sings on "The Upsetter", the first track on Metronomy's new album, Love Letters. The line is, of course, a coy reference to The English Riviera, Metronomy's breakthrough 2011 album. It is also a bit of chicanery, because Love Letters is actually quite a departure from its predecessor.
After such a critical and commercial corner has been turned, a band must decide what to do next. Usually, that results in one of two general outcomes. They either offer up more of the same, possibly with a few refinements or new twists, or they careen off the success like it's poison, which it often is, and take another direction, expectations be damned. In this case, Mount and his three cohorts in Metronomy have taken a sharp turn inward, both musically and lyrically. The highbrow, cosmopolitan flourish of The English Riviera has faded.
Love Letters almost feels like a sort of morning-after affair, an atoning. Even its more uptempo numbers are tinged with regret, if not outright shame. Mount has written a cycle of rather personal love songs, and the music is mostly introspective and introverted as well. At its best, it creates a beguiling, intimate, maybe even touching effect. At other times, though, it struggles in vain to make it out of Mount's head, coming across as the unfocused, often silly demos of a guy who has had his heart broken.
The opening two songs are the strongest. "The Upsetter" does really read like a love letter, from a marooned ex-lover who is "stuck in 1992 here…Playing 'I Will Always Love You', yeah". Melancholy acoustic guitars and an emotive, Lindsey Buckingham-like coda solo underscore Mount's wounded sincerity, despite his quirky falsetto. Single "I'm Aquarius" explores similar emotional territory, Mount lamenting "You said our love was written in the stars / But I never paid attention to my charts". With its chilled-out vibe, mellow keyboard pads, and shoop-shooping backing vocals, the song is in its subtle way just as cool as "The Look", the signature track from The English Riviera. Actually, the witty lyrics, eccentric vocals, and rinky-dink drum machine on both tracks bring to mind Flight of the Conchords, and that's not a put-down.
Love Letters continues in a low-key, hushed tone, even when the music gets more uptempo and a drumkit replaces the machine. Throughout, the band hit on different sounds and influences. There are touches of the psychedelic, acid, and krautrock in the fugue-like "Monstrous", disco instrumental "Boy Racers", and effervescing "Call Me". "Month of Sundays" and "The Most Immaculate Haircut" are more traditional indie-pop, with sparkling, almost-jangling guitars, but find Mount sounding no happier than on the rest of the material. "Reservoir" is an organ-led bit of quirk that sounds like a rewrite of "The Look" itself, while "Never Wanted" is a standout, beginning as a spaced-out George Clinton-meets-Pink-Floyd experiment and ending up in a too-brief swell of power-balladry, Mount wondering, "Does it get better?" and not getting an answer.
And that's really the struggle at the heart of Love Letters, because you find yourself asking that question, too. Mount's choice to veer away from a previously-successful sound and follow his psyche is a commendable one, but not even he sounds sure if he's up to the task. After the strong, stylistically-synched opening duo, too much of Love Letters ends up being either too dull or insular to leave a truly lasting impression; or, in the case of the cloying, faux-Motown title track, leaving an entirely disagreeable impression.
That renders Love Letters not quite a glorious failure, but more of an intermittently-glorious muddle.