"What's up? This is the Lawrence Arms," announces Brendan Kelly through a sample leading off "Hickey Avenue". The statement, though redundant, is very much necessary. For the better part of the last decade the Lawrence Arms experienced some synergy issues. After releasing five studio albums, a handful of EPs and inexorable touring, the Arms profile touted their prolificacy and relentlessness. But after 2006's Oh! Calcutta! they entered a period of relative dormancy. Reprieve was offered in 2009's extended play Buttsweat and Tears, and they managed to play a smattering of shows over the years. Still, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. In the interim, de facto ringleader Brendan Kelly released music with The Wandering Birds tag as well as a split solo effort with Smoke or Fire's Joe McMahon. He also had two children. Chris McCaughan put out three records of (mostly) solo material under the Sundowner moniker. He also moved cross-country to Portland. Rounding out the trope, fan favorite Neil Hennessy kept busy with The Treasure Fleet, Smoking Popes, and Council Trail (though the latter never got off the ground). That all three could find time to write an album is cause for celebration. So, the guys got together for a New Years Eve soiree in their hometown of Chicago, played a new song, and fumblingly counted down to 2014. And with that: a New Year, a new album, Metropole.
Upon initial listen, Metropole feels reserved. For a record so long overdue, it definitely eschews any sense of immediacy. Everything seems turned down - the guitars, the provocations, the intentions. It's emulated and contrived. Perhaps a casualty of the hype machine, maybe a bit overthought; either way, the first few spins are disappointing. In fact, it may even prevent the staunchest supporters from giving it a fair shot. But like a long lost friend, you start to remember what you liked about the person, and things change quickly.
Kelly and McCaughan have always treated the Lawrence Arms as a vehicle for airing their grievances - or demons - concerning life, love, ambitions, politics and friends, and Metropole doesn't attempt to alter that approach. However, what makes it stand out against the Lawrence Arms' previous work is its acute obsession with delineating these themes through the concepts of time and space - specifically, reconciling reality with temporal relativity, the actual and the perceived. This isn't the same treatment we're used to seeing from a band whose unofficial logo is an hourglass with wings - a purported notion of (ir)reverence that promotes equal parts stagnation and carpe diem. In the first few seconds of album opener "Chilean District" a faded McCaughan sings, "I was born and I died, just a moment went by." From there they proffer experience as analysis, and for the first time arrive to some very different conclusions.
At the forefront of Metropole's discourse is the diffusion of our tendency to mitigate time in an attempt to preserve a frame of reference. The title track opens with an acoustic guitar strumming and is quickly accompanied by scant electric notes and a somber McCaughan who - sounding more like his Sundowner alter ego - shares that despite uncertainty and a lack of familiarity that can arise from change, life can feel like "years on repeat." When the song kicks into gear, a soft, but characteristically raspy, Kelly reverberates the defeatism: "The traffic lights blinked a million times/ I blinked twice and 20 years went by." To maximize the sense of desolation typically characterized by a perceived break in space-time continuity, the music swells with the aid of additional guitars, creating a surreal space that is simultaneously lush and empty. This feeling of detachment is central to the shit giving firestorm "Hickey Avenue", an explosive track in the style of Oh! Calcutta! Kelly and McCaughan trade vocals, targeting their visceral judgments at entities (people, institutions, etc.) that spend their time marred in fruitless activities (the oft repeated "we talk a lot" says it all) before launching into a rousing chorus, declaring, "We've been drowning through this endless parade of identical days/ Nothing changes, it only rots away."
The cavalierism doesn't stop there. On the vicious "Drunk Tweets" Kelly doesn't spare anyone a "fuck you" - not even himself. On "Acheron River", eponymously titled after the river of woe from Greek mythology that led to the underworld, Kelly provides his brand of blunt pith on life: "Here's the fucking spoiler: Everybody dies." While the focus may have changed, the delivery is still very much the same, which works because, like their fans, the Lawrence Arms are just older versions of themselves. This fact is constantly recognized throughout Metropole. For example, "Seventeener (17th & 34th)" presents a dejected Kelly reflecting on the aging process - one that he had every intention of skipping - with calm observation (his beard is getting white) and lighthearted dreaming (he wants to die high), until ultimately conceding, "and dying young just didn't work/and so I guess I'm just dying old." In there lies a resignation often not imbued in the Lawrence Arms - it's neither defiant nor defeatist, simply acknowledgement. And while drawn to making fantastical claims in the past, things seem more sober this time around. In the cheekily titled "Paradise Shitty" Kelly divulges, "I'm so alive, I'm so afraid/ that I'm going to waste what's left of these days." His complex builds urgency lock step with the music until it finally reaches a confessional precipice, the constantly steady drums breaking into crash fits and a guitar riddling off disparate notes; "Fuck me, man, I knew not what I've done."
Still, even as fleeting as time can feel, there's a very real sense of loss on Metropole. "Beautiful Things" is a nostalgic plea for the past, where early experience both constructs and defines youth and life potential. It provides the necessary context for dissecting Metropole's bifurcated explication of mortality - the individual's ability to both die and live forever. As explored on the title track, it's easy to walk through life with blinders on, succumbing to the indiscriminate monotony of the day-to-day, losing those (beautiful) things that distinguish life, and awaking to find yourself, years later, in a strange place alone. For the Lawrence Arms, maintaining perspective is the trick for evading the consequence of time. "I fired, I missed. I fired again," McCaughen and Kelly sing on "Never Fade Away". "Don't know where I'm headed, but I know where I've been." Translation: Meet people, take chances, fuck up. Spend a night reminiscing, and then spend the next one living. Because here's the short of it: life's about living for tomorrow, but living without regret.
It can feel trite when an artist lauds their latest effort as "the best one yet;" worse when they make some contrived comment about the recording process ("It had to be fun or we weren't going to do it," "The music needed to be good," etc.). Despite the fact that the Lawrence Arms have said some of these exact things regarding Metropole, they also know this record could very well not exist. But it does exist, and it deserves the praise because it's vibrant and familiar and realized; like meeting up with old friends - everyone seems to get it. Metropole isn't visionary, it's nothing new, and it certainly isn't for everyone. But it is the Lawrence Arms par excellence: catchy melodies, superb rhythm, snarky but contemplative, harsh but relieving. Every drum fill perfectly executed, every backing vocal impeccably placed, every Brendan Kelly grunt uttered completely. As much as Metropole is a record by the Lawrence Arms, it is also very much for them, too. So a toast to some old friends - you did it, again.