If 'The English Riviera' was for tourists, Metronomy's fourth album comes from a much more personal place
When last we saw Metronomy, they were strolling rakishly into the golden light of a Torbay sunset, a Mercury nomination in their back pocket and sales of their third album racking up like rows of cherries on a one-armed-bandit slot machine. The success of ‘The English Riviera’ could hardly have happened to a more deserving band, but anyone expecting ‘Love Letters’ to pick up where its predecessor’s tongue-in-cheek vision of seaside glamour left off will be disappointed. “Back out on the riviera, it gets so cold at night”, yelps a forlorn-sounding Joseph Mount on opener ‘The Upsetter’, a song that drops references to early-’90s cultural touchstones like Tasmin Archer, Whitney Houston and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but whose droning atmosphere of dislocation and anxiety has more in common with David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ than Archer’s ‘Sleeping Satellite’. By the time the ghostly ‘Never Wanted’ brings things to a close, 40 too-brief minutes later, it’s impossible not to picture tumbleweed blowing down a derelict promenade, past stacks of weather-beaten deck chairs, shuttered-up bars and empty arcades. The inference is clear: welcome to the off-season.
Where a more craven artist might have sought to cash in on a sleeper hit like ‘The English Riviera’ with a big, populist follow-up, Mount has returned with a small, unashamedly personal one, made with an auteur’s ear for detail and disregard for expectation. It’s an album about yearning to return to the things you’ve been dragged away from, be they the landmarks of your childhood (the quaint casiotone melancholy of ‘Reservoir’) or your children themselves (“Honestly, it’s all I’m thinking of”, sings a distracted Mount of his baby son on ‘Monstrous’). You’ll find nothing here as immediate or accessible as ‘The Bay’, and even among those who were predisposed to love them, the album’s first two singles have polarised, not galvanised, opinion: the velvety future-doo-wop of ‘I’m Aquarius’ served as a curiously moody and minor-key introduction, while the title track came screeching in from the other extreme, as ostentatious and off-puttingly exuberant as a troupe of Redcoats jazz-handing their way through a Wings medley.
This contrarian impulse ultimately makes things more interesting, but Mount’s decision to record at Toe Rag – the all-analogue Hackney studio made famous by The White Stripes and Billy Childish – imbues the songs with an archaic, lived-in feel that takes some getting used to, and you’d be forgiven for being underwhelmed by your first listen. Bear with it, however, and that feeling will turn to pleasant surprise. ‘Monstrous’ and ‘Month of Sundays’ both recall the airy baroque-pop of Arthur Lee and Love (though the latter ends up sounding like one of Yoko Ono’s more angular, New Wave-y efforts), and with the exception of ‘Boy Racers’ – a lightweight instrumental that doesn’t quite feel properly realised – every song, no matter how slight it may initially seem, serves an aesthetic purpose in the grander scheme of things.
In recent interviews, Mount has professed a certain dread about one day reaching the Wembley-conquering enormity of his old tourmates Coldplay, which – even when you take Metronomy’s growing popularity into account – sounds comically premature. ‘Love Letters’ should assuage that angst. While not a ‘difficult’ album per se, it is certainly an obdurate and insular one, whose charms are revealed coyly and across repeat listens. ‘The English Riviera’ was for the tourists; this one needs to be lived in, not just visited.