Album Reviews Music

ALBUM REVIEW: Emily Haines and The Soft Skeletons- Choir of the Mind

Image taken from artist’s Instagram

This unexpected solo side project from Emily Haines of Metric and Broken Social Scene fame provides a thought provoking and philosophical listening experience, which in the words of Emily Haines herself explores “the sound of femininity as a sound that’s not related to men”. Choir of the Mind is a minimalist and piano driven album which places great emphasis on the husky yet crisp delivery of Haines (although sometimes I wanted more texture from the very clean production to further compliment this delivery). While unexpected it can be seen as a natural progression and reaction to the most recent, and underappreciated, Metric album, Pagans in Vegas. This is because Choir of the Mind starkly contrasts the Depeche Mode esque electronic vibe of Pagans in Vegas, going back to a more simplistic yet ambitious sound. It explores complex themes and pushes the boundaries between spoken word poetry and music, where Pagan in Vegas focused on a satire of the lack of strong or important themes in modern pop music.

The theme of exploration of femininity is central to this record and one of the reasons for the stripped-down production, which places increased significance on the lyrics and themes. The way these themes are presented through the lyrics is very distinctive of Haines, using very simple language to express very complex ideas. While you may expect this to make a challenging album more accessible, it can have the opposite effect on the first few listens, because you understand what is being said but not what it means.  However, the more you listen to Choir of the Mind the more satisfying it is becomes due to its extensive exploration of its main ideas, which justify this project being a full album as opposed to an EP. This is a rarity for often vanity driven side projects which don’t always have much to say.

Despite a shift in tone to complex ideas about femininity and societal values in this album, moments of satire can still be found within. Most notably in the title track ‘Choir of the Mind’ when Haines references Rihanna’s hit song ‘Work’, highlighting the contrast between the ideas of femininity informed by the masculine perspective presented by ‘Work’, with the idea of femininity irrespective of men presented in this album. This is one of the features of the album, along with her distinctive vocals, which strongly identifies Choir of the Mind with Haines. This makes it stand out in an often-crowded field, particularly when compared to the many piano driven minimalist soft rock albums which were released in the mid-2000s, around the time The Soft Skeletons formed.

Furthermore, ‘Wounded’ and ‘Legend of the Wild Horse’ present a complex personal narrative, exploring how going wild for some guy diminished Haines suggesting how being in control and acting in her own mind can allow her to feel equal in a relationship and stronger for that. Despite this, Haines is still capable of admitting that the power of a strong, dominating male is alluring. These themes build through the album and all lead to ‘Irish Exit’, the penultimate track. In this track she concludes this narrative by admitting she still feels this attraction when she sees the guy, but uses the inner strength and understanding she has developed to gracefully exit without giving in to these destructive desires. The album is then concluded by ‘R.I.P’, which summarises the personal development which has occurred across the album, presenting the death of the Emily Haines who diminished herself to please men and the birth of the Emily Haines who has embraced the power of her femininity irrespective of men.

However, while the themes are effectively explored sometimes they are too on the nose. This makes them very explicit and clear but has the knock-on effect of making them feel as if they lack depth. An example of this is the critique of capitalist society in ‘Fatal Gift’, which opens with the line “Haven’t we made enough for a living wage?” and contains the hook “the things you own, they own you”. This is a theme and problem which can be seen across Haines’s writing, such as in ‘Handshake’ from Metric’s 2005 album Live It Out. ‘Handshake’ similarly felt very on the nose and was unable to provide a critique of capitalist society beyond the surface level. This problem is intensified by the fact that some songs on the album over stay their welcome due to a lack of melodic development failing to justify their indulgent length, which in the case of ‘Fatal Gift’ runs past six minutes. This stagnation can also be felt on ‘Statuette’.

Overall while this album is definitely flawed it is an album I can recommend to anyone looking for a more challenging and thought provoking listening experience.  While not for everyone and unlikely to break Haines into new territories globally or be a smash hit, this album is still a rewarding listen if you are willing to let it grow on you. However, it is also the kind of album which many are likely to respect more than they enjoy.

Words by: Max Modell