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How Metronomy’s The English Riviera captured the British seaside through eccentric electronica

Ten years on, these ridiculously slick rhythms still hit just as hard. 

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There’s a charming tweeness to­ proceedings on The English Riviera, the third album from the band Metronomy. When the record came out in 2011, critics said that the electro-pop group had summoned an aura of LA cool. In between the warm lounge ­keyboards and sparse yet confident production, however, there’s something distinctly, awkwardly British about the whole endeavour. The sound of squawking seagulls and lapping waves opens the record – a canned track taken straight off Apple’s iMovie – and on the ­penultimate song “She Wants”, the lingering synth has the timbre of a kazoo, childish and silly.

These seem unlikely features of a hit record, but it was this mix of playfulness and sentimentality that made The English Riviera one of the most exciting ­releases of the 2010s. The album, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary, secured Metronomy a Mercury Prize nomination and widened their audience to reach indie-pop fans alongside their loyal alternative electro-heads. It also distinguished them as a ­reliably innovative group in the UK, a reputation they have upheld with their subsequent albums Love Letters (2014), Summer 08 (2016),  Metronomy Forever (2019) – and a seventh, as yet unnamed, on its way next year.

Joe Mount, Metronomy’s songwriter, singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist, had previously released two records of glitchy, underground intelligent dance music (IDM): Pip Paine (Pay the £5000 You Owe) in 2006 and Nights Out in 2008. On the first album Mount owned the Metronomy moniker alone, while by the second he was joined by his cousin and keyboardist Oscar Cash, and an old school friend, the bassist Gabriel Stebbing. When playing live, the band appeared as an odd trio: three men standing behind three keyboards, each with a Poundland light bulb stuck to his  T-shirt, and ­waving his hands as part of a synchronised routine.

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Both early albums showed signs of the Metronomy that was to come: synth-heavy tunes with jerky rhythms, and a keen appreciation for ultra-specific sonic textures. By the time The English Riviera was released, however, Metronomy was a different outfit altogether but, crucially, Mount remained at its core. Stebbing left the band in 2009 and in stepped bassist Olugbenga Adelekan and Anna Prior, the band’s first live drummer. As a four-piece, Metronomy became a tight unit, Mount’s off-kilter rhythms slicker, and therefore somehow ­jauntier than ever before. The light bulbs were no more, and the band soon adopted a classy aesthetic that they’ve maintained throughout the last decade: matching tailored burgundy suits; cobalt blue workers’ jackets with cream trousers; all-white boilersuits.

After growing up in Torbay, south ­Devon – the “riviera” referenced in the album ­title – Mount moved to Brighton for university, and then to London. Part of the reason why the group’s third album sounds so quintessentially British is because most of it was written in Paris, where Mount later moved to start a family, and where he found a new nostalgia for his seaside upbringing.

It was from his Parisian apartment ­facing Montmartre and the Sacré Cœur – not gazing out onto the English Channel from Torquay – that he wrote the synth riff of “The Look”. But the place he sings of is home:

You’re up, but you’ll get down You’re never running from this town And to think you said,  “You’ll never get anything better than this”

It’s a song about escaping a small town in which you’re told you have no prospects, to find something more ­exciting – the bright lights of a big city – while continuing to cherish the memories of your youth. It’s about appreciating that where you come from may not be anywhere of much importance, but that the time you spent there – the friendships and relationships you had as a teenager – changed you for the better.

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This warmth – small yet profound – is there too in the incessant catchiness of the call-and-response chorus, where the rhymes somehow both sound like they came out of a children’s book and like a genuinely heartfelt recollection:

We didn’t read it in a big book And now we’re giving you the look, look But just remember how we shook, shook And all those things we took, took.

Metronomy took their ode to the Devon coast to Europe, where they are now as popular as they are in the UK, particularly on the summer festival circuit. There’s something wonderful about the thought of a crowd in France or Germany singing along to the refrain on “The Bay” and thinking of their hometowns, coastal or otherwise:

Because this isn’t Paris And this isn’t London And it’s not Berlin And it’s not Hong Kong Not Tokyo

Because, while the sonic effect of this ­record is one of jovial, small-time Britishness, its themes of origin stories, and ­working out where you do and don’t  belong, are universal.

Alongside Mount’s affection for Torbay, The English Riviera brought a new energy to contemporary synth-led music, bridging the gaps between indie rock, pop and ­electronica. As a teenager who up until then was besotted with female singer-songwriters and acoustic folk-rock I became hooked on the simplicity of Mount’s melodies, and I realised that to write music with the aid of synthetic sounds or a computer is not to write with less talent or true feeling. In time The English Riviera led me to Radiohead’s In Rainbows, and Everything Everything’s Man Alive, to Tame Impala and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, music that relies on the push and pull between the constraints of deft songwriting and the endless freedom of electronics.

Listening to The English Riviera, you may get side-tracked by wondering about the origin of the unlikely, bubbly flute solo of “Some Written”, or the wave-accompanied Moog break on “Loving Arm”. But what you’re left with, when the record has spun its course, is a sense of a band who can write and play some ridiculously slick rhythms. Ten years on, they hit just as hard.

The tenth anniversary reissue of  “The English Riviera” is out now on Because Music

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Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s assistant culture editor.

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism