EMILY HAINES & THE SOFT SKELETON - CHOIR OF THE MIND (LAST GANG)
Though she doesn’t often allow herself to wallow in it, widescreen misery is perhaps Emily Haines’ greatest strength as a writer. Across her Soft Skeleton output, she regularly sounds like the only artist within touching distance of Elliott Smith’s despondent glory. Like Smith, she staples bright, melodic Beatles chord changes to naked despair and allows them space to coexist – it’s what made Knives Don’t Have Your Back such an affecting listen, and set her apart from the sludge of earnest singer-songwriters desperate to convince us of their pain.
It also allowed her to cache dump all her terror into the Soft Skeleton, return cleansed to Metric and chase a more hopeful muse with Fantasies, albeit informed by the openness of her debut solo collection. This then led to Synthetica, which dwelled on the terror of technology as empty stimulus, and with palindromic precision, this now informs the aesthetic of Choir Of The Mind.
It’s been a decade-plus since Knives..., so it’s unrealistic to expect a direct sequel. Admirably, Haines doesn’t seem interested in that, although the current state of the world would make it entirely forgivable. Instead, it’s an exploratory prowl through an exploitative industry (particularly its treatment of women) and the futility of nostalgia. "You’re the guy who always brings the drugs / when nobody wants drugs” she offers on ‘Irish Exit’, and it’s a neat summation of the record: everyone is outgrowing each other, no matter how much some try to cling on.
All this should make for an unrelentingly bleak record, but Haines never allows her compositions to drown under their themes. Her debut’s concision allowed it to be both monochromatic and successful, but a good artist understands the same trick never works twice, so she drags in electronic pulses and breathy rhythms, takes orchestral left-turns and allows her full-band day job to bleed into her solo work. There are moments to rival anything in her discography, particularly the beautifully restless ‘Statuette’, the arms-wide vulnerability of ‘Nihilist Abyss’ and the gentle bloom of ‘Siren’.
The ghost of Elliott Smith remains hovering overhead, particularly that of XO, as Haines echoes ‘I Didn’t Understand’ on the opening ‘Planets’ and references ‘Sweet Adeline’ both by name and approach, on ‘Statuette’ and ‘Legend Of The Wild Horse’, respectively. Crucially, although it’s a clear acknowledgement, it avoids theft or awkward pastiche.
Unfortunately, though, Choir Of The Mind’s expansiveness is also its undoing. In stretching the run time to over an hour, Haines loses control in the record’s midsection and allows it to meander over a distinctly uninteresting three-song stretch. From ‘Minefield Of Memory’ through ‘Choir Of The Mind’, she reverts to autopilot and covers old ground without stopping to question each song’s necessity. The title track is the worst offender, as Haines dedicates five-and-a-half long minutes to a dense spoken-word monologue that also includes an embarrassing riff on Rihanna’s ‘Work’. It’s approximately as engrossing as Annie Hardy’s turn on Deftones’ ‘Pink Cellphone’, and undoes everything that has come before.
Pre-release track ‘Fatal Gift’ suffers the same fate; it’s been kicking around in Metric form since 2014, and it’s shift from stark piano slow-burn to electro banger betrays its creator's indecision about its home. Relying on the refrain of "the things you own / they own you” as some sort of revelatory insight wasn’t enough to save Papa Roach in 2001, and sounds even more tired here. Bafflingly, the song apparently warranted a ‘Video Edit’ reprise at the end of the record, arriving just in time to undermine a fantastic closing stretch.
With a more ruthless final edit, this would probably be the high point of Haines’ career. Where her debut was sometimes reticent to the point of apology, on Choir… her confidence and all-consuming belief in her music is vividly rendered and incredibly welcome. However, it’s not enough to sell the LP’s low points. Ultimately, this is a sometimes-glorious release that can’t get out from under its own feet.