Picture a budding music fan who somehow finds the upcoming William Patrick Corgan album before any Smashing Pumpkins. She cracks open the Guided by Voices discography only after hearing Robert Pollard’s near-infinite solo and non-GBV work. Maybe they arrive at Remain in Light through David Byrne’s still-significant Luaka Bop output. This must be a regular scenario, and it makes sense as time marches on and people continue to stumble through the minefields of preference. Playlists, mixes, links IM’d by friends, auto-plays based on cookies, and radio, each a tributary spiraling out in serpentines towards and through the larger rivers of our shared musical canon.
All this to confess that I was introduced to Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton before Metric, the multi-award winning and nominated Canadian synth-rock-pop group which she primarily fronts. Metric is grand, but Emily’s solo compositions are more intimate, as they lilt between gut-wrenching and slyly acerbic. Knives Don’t Have Your Back and the What is Free to a Good Home? EP feature Emily at the piano with her voice, occasionally accompanied with drums, bass, strings, or synths, tending that special breed of glumly self-aware song that lifts up from burrowed roots. Sorrow doesn’t stretch out unchecked, rather, Emily is a master of small shifts in tone and key that resonate exponentially. Each track is scaffolded with deceptively simple runs on the piano that zig to spite the zag, as with how “Reading in Bed” starts out in a dour soundscape but turns into a meadow wafting with soft-focus trumpets, resolving into a different heartspace.
Eleven years later, Emily Haines resurrects the Soft Skeleton to broaden her creative achievements: doubling down on the ability to pale a song between shades with enormous effect and expanding on her repertoire of sounds while maintaining an ASMR-like intimacy with her voice. Choir of the Mind starts by stacking Emily with herself, literalizing the titular choir, and alluding the growth to expect in this new collection. She’s added some colors to her palette but it’s still her croon, her candid piano melodies.
The second track, “Fatal Gift,” is probably her most exposed turn, a six-minute chimera of sounds and shuffles, a microcosm of the album at large. Starting alone at the keys, as she so often does, Emily serves a delicate dish that we might have come to expect by now, but soon an oily bassline slithers in with some programmed beats not far behind. The sounds build up like sedimentary layer from there, only to dip back down to a choir of one and then stack back up through a Fugazi-like mantra of “all the things you own / they own you.” It squirms, squiggles, and twists, each adjustment a fresh breath.
To wrap up the opening tryptic Emily spools down to her reverberated voice and some very faint background plinking, a mandolin or ukulele, but you have to strain to hear them. Appropriate for a song titled “Strangling All Romance,” a naked and short first-act coda suited exclusively for her singular voice, a well-hammered tool that she executes with poise and precision. Emily may never be accused of singing at the level of Beyoncé (with whom she shares a predilection for baseball bats) but she is a master of her own vocals, spinning a sweet and sour lullaby with raw grace and confidence, eschewing any unnecessary flash.
Choir of the Mind runs a smidge long for my tastes but no single cut feels undercooked. Emily’s experiments with space and texture further buoy her gift for subtle but still tectonic pirouettes of unease, from the start through “Legend of the Wild Horse” and “Choir of the Mind” which both stretch repetition and chorus into a structural cat’s cradle that spins without dizzying. Her titles and lyrics teem with a grey, clever nihilism blunted by sarcasm. She smiles while she bites, she meditates with a glimmering smirk.
These are the kind of songs that dig fire from dark earth, seemingly draped in a mantle of gloom but accenting minor scales with accents of light. The Soft Skeleton is an apt image: sensitive, worn down to the bones musically and emotionally. But in that erosion lies the opportunity for rebirth, to move between moods with a strategically slight guitar line or harmony. Metric may be Emily Haines’s legacy, but her solo work is the lighthouse I search for in the darkest clouds, the thickest fogs, even the cloying sun.