There was much talk in indie-circles leading up to the release of Emily Haines’s solo debut: raised speculation about the Metric headmistress jumping ship, raised eyebrows about another dance queen emerging from the shadows of her bandmates like Gwen did from the ashes of No Doubt. In fact, the attention stemming from the buzz for the solo release seemed odd and out of whack given Haines’s track record. Her history with the shape-shifting Canadian music phenomenon, Broken Social Scene should have been enough to demonstrate the artist’s appreciation for experimentation beyond Metric. Also, her roots in music beginning with the piano were certainly indicative of other interests and abilities. So while many critics have since spoken about the solo record in ways that suggest tinges of disappointment with a release that’s so polar opposite from Metric’s usual fare, I wonder why on earth they would have expected anything otherwise.
Knives Don’t Have Your Back is a far cry from the dancefloor flavors of Metric’s releases; that much-hyped sexy front woman with the sultry stage moves is not featured here. This is a bare-bones offering of Haines and a piano. The press release describes Knives as “an intimate and subtle collection of mellow, piano-driven tunes complimented by soft string and horn arrangements”. It’s certainly about as far as you can get from a description of any Metric track, but actually the two facets of Haines’ musical personas are not as far removed as that might suggest.
In fact, Knives reads more like a collection of muted footnotes to those Metric tracks that have come before it. Haines herself notes: “These [solo] songs are still the same. They’re the source mood for every Metric tune, but without the benefit of my friends rocking out behind them.” Unlike the trendy breakout attempts of other female band leaders lately, perhaps this record is not what was expected. Without the danceable beat or synth melodies of Metric, perhaps it’s easy to get lost in the simplicity of the hypnotic piano melodies that surround Haines’s voice here. But beyond just being an interesting glimpse into the back alleys of Metric’s repertoire for fans of the band, the album is a revealing and refreshing offering for those who are willing and able to pay attention.
Two full length Metric albums, world tours, and living up to the media’s rock-goddess status: Emily Haines is a busy girl. So busy that Knives features a collection of 11 songs that were written and recorded over the past four years in four different cities. The album release was mainly a natural evolution of Haines’s foremost personal pastime of hanging out with her piano. On the encouragement of friends she decided to give the songs a proper recording before they were forgotten. While there is not a specific moment on Knives that feels out of place, the collective energy of the songs ranging from such extended periods of time and places lends itself well to the themes of transience and displacement felt throughout.
The songs mark pivotal points in the artist’s own timeline, covering new levels of success with Metric and the sudden passing of her father, poet Paul Haines. Being privy to these moments in such an unfiltered format provides more backbone for these songs than any backbeat could. The piano simmers in a creeping way, almost passively in and around the verses; the songs seem to envelope themselves. Thoughtful minimalism produces an overall mood that is introspective and intimate without being self-indulgent or uncomfortable. It’s a rare combination, and one that should also be attributed to the backing group on the record, a few of Haines’s self-proclaimed “favorite musicians” that she calls The Soft Skeleton — including Sparklehorse’s Scott Minor, Broken Social Scene’s Justin Peroff, Stars’ Evan Cranley, and Metric’s Jimmy Shaw.
There is melancholy, there is confusion and there is a general loneliness on this record; there is also hope, optimism and comfort. However, it’s the context of the record that makes it more interesting than any one of these things. The confused anxiety felt in “Don’t elaborate like that / You’ll frighten off the frat boys / Use your baby talk” on “Mostly Waving” and frustrated musings on society’s expectations with “All the babies tucked away in their beds, we’re out here screaming / ‘The life that you thought through is gone!'” on “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff” are infinitely more poignant when you consider it’s the voice of a woman who is struggling with the realities of a moderate level of fame and the instability of life on the road.
Haines’s voice stays in the near-whisper range throughout most of the album, but the raspy soprano is still such an extraordinary vehicle for expression even in the slower pace she keeps on this record. She obviously has a way with words, but the juxtaposition of the soft, sweet voice carrying such weighty subject matter is an interesting source of strength behind the role-playing that emerges over the course of the album. The disillusionment of “The Lottery” and disdain of “Doctor Blind” up against the bitter hope of “Our Hell” and the comforting lullaby of the album’s closer, “Winning” — it’s more than the average piano-songstress shtick. With such sparse instrumentation, these songs are still thick; there may not be a beat here to dance to but there is a lot to grab on to certainly.