September 15, 2017

TEST SPIN | Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton — Choir of the Mind

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You may know Emily Haines from the Canadian band Metric. This Emily Haines is an entertainer. She energizes arenas of fans. She sings and plays the synth at Coachella. She dances comfortably on the stage.

Yet there is another side to Emily Haines: quieter and lesser-known, slower and more introspective. A side that you might not glean from popular, faster-tempo Metric songs such as “Gold Guns Girls” or, more recently, “The Shade.” A side that surfaced in 2006 with a full-length album, and once more in 2007 with an EP. And after 10 years of slumber, Emily Haines has once more unearthed that side of her she calls Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton, her solo project, in order to deliver a new album, Choir of the Mind.

And while Metric has evolved in its own way over the course of its six albums — from downtempo to rock proper to indie rock and most recently to dance rock — so has The Soft Skeleton discarded some of its old bones in creating this new album. Considering that her 2006 release Knives Don’t Have Your Back was written during a particularly difficult time in her life following the passing away of her father, both this album and her subsequent 2007 EP What is Free to a Good Home? deal with themes of mourning, isolation and abandonment.

In Choir of the Mind, however, there is an undeniable lifting in the tones of her new songs. Haines has moved up higher on the piano, replacing the brooding, deliberate bass notes of Knives Don’t Have Your Back with elevated, almost dream-like melodies. She has opted for synthesized background beats and breathy vocal layers — clearly influenced by Metric’s 2015 release Pagans in Vegas — where in previous releases there was a quiet jazz drum and mournfully rolling cello. She has written expansive and lofty lyrics, no longer rooted in 2006’s luxurious melancholy and grief.

Choir of the Mind is erudite. It is self-reflective. It is hypnotic. It is cosmic. At some points, it is even a bit disorienting, as in the first minute opening track, “Planets,” in which a layering of vocals accompanies a gently plodding piano to achieve a swirling, weightless feeling.

Yet at the center of all this cosmogony and weightlessness, there is, perhaps, a void of sincerity across the album. Maybe this is a result of the vocal layering and synthesizer that appear in many tracks on the album, manufacturing an impersonal and mechanical sound. Or maybe it is not necessarily insincerity that permeates the album, but inaccessibility.

Emily Haines attempts to tackle questions of her own identity, her relationship to society and her own viewpoints on the progress of society (especially with regards to women), approaching these issues from her own labyrinthine introspections. Unlike in her previous releases, though, she is not speaking in the common language of grief. On Choir of the Mind, she is speaking in her own language. She is trying to process her own thoughts.

Unfortunately, these thoughts are often disjointed, like in the first single off the album, “Fatal Gift.” It suffers from somewhat awkwardly phrased lyrics: “We accept the fatal gift/A soup stone for our stove/And a blindfold for our tears,” which, in tandem with the dreamy, high notes of the piano, create a combination that is out of sync. It then transitions uneasily to a strange dance beat, over which Haines periodically declares, “The things you own they own you.” As a whole, it is muddled. Its lyrics are a bit heavy-handed. Haines is in a dream world, yet her lyrics are critiques of reality; she has added a chilling dance beat to a reflective ballad, one thing undermining the other.

Other times, however, the lyrics and beat unite in interesting ways. In another single, “Statuette,” which marries a light, breezy bossa nova beat with the words, “With all the coal in the core/All the water and the oil/You can buy any girl in the world.” The balance here between heaviness and lightness is effective. It has a catchy beat; without the haunting vocals to accompany it, the song would be relaxing and carefree. Instead, it becomes pleasantly unsettling.

Yet even in these situations where the album succeeds, its success is based around an artificial construction of separate elements. There is no emotional rawness to Choir in the Mind. I cannot crawl into my bed, cower under the covers, and simply feel the weights of every note and lyric, one by one as they dig deeper, gently pulled by the immense undertow of melancholy like I can with both Knives Don’t Have Your Back and What is Free to a Good Home? (“Telethon” from her What is Free to a Good Home? will always be my go-to cover-cowering song).

The environment of the new album is an enchanting dream from which there is no true awakening. Rough reality never emerges for the listener, who is condemned to look into Haines’ mind always from the outside, condemned to orbit interminably around a mechanized emptiness.

Even as I listen through the tracks on Choir of the Mind, I am drawn back to the songs of Knives Don’t Have Your Back, to “Our Hell,” to “Reading in Bed,” to “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff” and to “Winning.” Listen to those songs. Unearth the 10-year old Soft Skeleton. Let the rolling waves of bass notes wash over you. Ease into the powerful emotional performances of Emily Haines as she speaks to you the language of intense wistfulness. Feel the immense gravity of reality; do not merely dream about it.


Colton Poore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].