Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton
Knives Don’t Have Your Back
n the liner notes of her solo album, Metric frontwoman Emily Haines displays an old textbook illustration of the human heart, blown up so that it fills the translucent X-rayed ribcage on the page before it. White arrows, a new feature added to an old drawing, penetrate the heart from all directions. The gamut of human emotions originate in the heart, so to speak, and for 45 minutes we are expected to see that organ as the body’s only operator; its only troublemaker; its only recourse worth noting. This is an old argument, but a lovely idea, and most rewarding if Haines can display for us the hows and whys of the heart’s grandness.
The Soft Skeleton, the other half of the music-makers here, are “a few of my favorite musicians,” Haines explains, and their additions are indeed limber and delicate under the singer’s hand. Noted modestly in the depths of the liner notes, Haines, by the bye, “wrote the songs and played them on piano while singing.” And it’s the piano that does the brunt of the work. The Tokai String Quartet and all-male cast of guitarists, keyboardists, drummers, and brass players skirt around a handful of pieces like curious onlookers trying their hand at the performance—they’re just here to help. But this near diffidence is highly appropriate; each song on this album was once itself merely standing by Metric looking on. But for no good reason: these benighted footnotes have the resonance of a painter’s once-lost early work that now deserve the center ring.
Knives is a quietly simmering LP, and it’s only on centerpiece “Mostly Waving” that the helper instruments bring any wallop—with an almost passive, creeping aggression as affecting as Metric’s straight-up rock numbers. The piano slithers in hollow, unresolved half-steps, the drums punch with formal accuracy, and the brass section drags us wordlessly down the alleyway of the chorus. It’s an unsettling sound aligned perfectly with the lyrics’ dropped-off thoughts: “Don’t elaborate like that / You’ll frighten off the frat boys.” Like it was all a momentary, futile return to a closed chapter, the song’s inconclusive last breath reasons, “Young, thought as I was / Done, thought as I was.”
Much of the album’s pieces have such a precise contextual feel, which fights with a lingering sense of displacement. Written and recorded over four years in Montreal, Toronto, Asheville, and New York, there’s an episodic transience to each track that yet allows them considerable uniformity, owed to the mulled piano and Haines’ sandy-throated soprano. What Haines adds to this underpainting is the entire spectrum of blue: the vague, wintry cheer of opener “Our Hell,” driven by the piano’s thick, conclusive thirds; the stifling underwater dirge of “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff”; and the pared down “Nothing and Nowhere,” where the piano’s winding melody might conjure a solo dance in an empty, furniture-less room. In the latter, appropriately, Haines sings, “All of my possessions I somehow lost them / Been traveling so light, when we’re floating by / It seems nothing and nowhere is golden.” The sparseness of these tracks drives their messages home. The instruments are the enclosures in which the message resides, not imprisoned, but hovering and spectacular in their isolation and as a thematically linked group.
The content of Knives isn’t locked into the day or days it was conceived, and the frequent ‘we’ addresses open up to relative generality songs that might otherwise feel intensely private. Haines notes on the exit track, “What we make doesn’t make sense / What’s a wolf without a pack?” Nonetheless the album feels like a journal’s “Best Of” entries—first-person musings on uprooting, death, fame, belonging. This procedure isn’t self-involved or belabored, and Haines doesn’t attempt to put a finger on the innumerable manifestations of impermanence. She merely works with the heart to trace around them with affectionate speculation.