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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Album Review: The Lawrence Arms - Metropole

Album Rating: B+
Ah, Brenden Kelly and friends, we meet again. Of course, The Lawrence Arms are hardly just a one-man endeavor, with Chris McCaughan and Neil Hennessey always bringing something interesting to the table. But Kelly’s daily intellectual dick joke musings, oddly perceptive interview questions and general tendency to not overemphasize his self-perceived, debatably esoteric art (flicker much?) has always been the most memorable and equally approachable in my book. Now, seven years after the return-to-form Oh! Calcutta!, our favorite drunken Chicago litterateurs have surfaced once again, this time around returning to an even older form with Metropole (recalling one of the greatest punk stories ever told), and though it’s a short sonic moment, there’s a lot worth retelling.

After seven years, or five, if we throw in Buttsweat, it seems as if our ramblin’ boys of pleasure have aged significantly since their bombastic, throaty Oh! Calcutta! days, with McCaughan and Kelly’s vocal deliveries (Kelly’s in particular) noticeably lacking in viciousness and bite. These aren’t so much ramblin’ boys anymore as they are jaded middle-aged men, maundering in tired despondency at that which has passed them by. The days when the pretty girls would notice McCaughan are long gone, and Kelly’s ass is only getting saggier, it seems. “Dying young just didn’t work / And so I guess I’m dying old,” Kelly sneers matter-of-factly in “Seventeener,” seventeen beers further away from any sort of youthful late-night romanticism.

Much of what colors Metropole is this defeated dreariness, this acceptance of wear and tear, but these gloomy midlife crises are precisely what make the album so appealing. “The YMCA Down the Street from the Clinic” is easily the most human four minutes The Lawrence Arms have ever put forth, with Kelly completely wallowing in his own self-loathing, texting, tweeting, looking at nudes and beating off in the dark. An eerily nonchalant whistle of McCaughan’s guitar melody brushes us off into the final chorus where we can almost feel the cynical whiskey rolling down Kelly’s shredded throat.

McCaughan seems to take a more upbeat swig in the following “Never Fade Away,” with a resolute, signature Larry Arms dual-harmony repeatedly proclaiming “I’ll never fade away” until the song hits a sudden brick wall. No fading, yes, but still an unavoidable end. This dichotomy of time infatuates McCaughan and Kelly throughout Metropole: is it better to burn out or end with a bang? And even more so—can you even escape this slow, sad ending in the first place?

“Metropole” skillfully flirts with the inevitable passing of time (“I blinked twice and twenty years went by”), while “Acheron River” teases poeticism initially until renouncing it at the midway point (“Here’s the fucking spoiler / Everybody dies”), casting aside the pen for yet another blurry round. The powerful final words of “October Blood,” “I was born and I died / And just a moment went by,” which, coincidentally, bookend both the song and the entire record, brush off any central question and accept time’s cosmic joke head on, just as Hennessey’s drums hit their conclusive final bang.

McCaughan’s guitar has never sounded more distant, more staggeringly powerful, in these verses, which make his strings an unexpected star of Metropole.  This part-time Sundowner has a knack for creating these widescreen reverberating atmospheres, somehow without the aid of effects pedals, that make you feel like you're right there with him, trudging through the snow.  The opening dark riff of "Beautiful Things" is just dripping with frozen personality, and even his most straightforward of palm-muting can still add a thoughtful haze to the equation.

They say that with age comes wisdom, and McCaughan's guitar is just one example of the schooled refinement that The Lawrence Arms can now deploy in their material.  Metropole is a shining example of the quality that can result from years of writing "a lot of garbage" to finally get to "the good stuff lurking underneath."  These songs are never too long.  Every part has a purpose.  The lyrical imagery would be exceptional for a novelist, let alone some drunken middle-aged men, and the ample seasoned references and allusions scattered within come to rival even those of The Greatest Story Ever Told.  The only real lapses in quality are when these ramblin' men don't act their age (the less said about "Drunken Tweets," the better) and resort back to their old sophomoric beardpunk melodies that littered some of their earlier material.  And as we've learned, the only real profundity truly comes when Kelly and McCaughan are honest about who they are.  They're old.  They're drunk, and man, do they still got it.

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Track List:
1. Chilean District
2. You Are Here
3. Hickey Avenue
4. Seventeener (17th and 37th)
5. Beautiful Things
6. Acheron River
7. Metropole
8. Drunken Tweets
9. The YMCA Down the Street from the Clinic
10. Never Fade Away
11. Paradise Shitty
12. October Blood

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