The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, October 13, 2006
EMILY HAINES & THE SOFT SKELETON: KNIVES DON’T HAVE YOUR BACK

From her recent Q&A interview on Exclaim!, I learned that Emily Haines’ father had passed away in the middle of compiling a mixtape. Perhaps it says something terrible about my attitude to loss that I am far too keen to know what was on that tape, or at least what had already been put on it. Even without a tracklisting I know that it would have been an adventurous compilation, full of unexpected twists and rapturous serendipity.

Being slow to catch on to things in general, it wasn’t until Lena reminded me recently that I realised that Emily’s father was Paul Haines, the man whose poetry inspired the greatest music ever made – need I remind you, at this late stage, what that is? – and yet again it seems so apt, so unique and so tremendously affecting that we should now have his daughter’s first solo album, an album moreover which not only bears a characteristically affectionate sleevenote from Robert Wyatt (if we’re talking about musicians who have never made a bad record in their lives), in which he pinpoints her magic with subtle artfulness ("She slips around the edge of the stage, almost disappears, keeps to the shadows like her parents taught her, then is suddenly positioned right beside your ear") and dedications to both Robert and to Carla, but is housed in a sleeve which pays explicit homage to that of Escalator Over The Hill. Moreover, one of its songs is entitled "Detective Daughter," a clear reference to Escalator’s "Detective Writer Daughter" in which Haines grapples with her legacy as mirror image over whole tones and emerges, bruised but cautiously triumphant ("Detective daughter copy – please don’t be me…/To thy self be true"). The Bley original ends in a heroin double entendre ("Everybody it seemed was killing horses").

Knives Don’t Have Your Back, as you can tell from its title, is more interested in salvaging lives than ending them. It is a quiet, considered but very, very hurt record – it’s scarcely surprising that work on it began shortly after her father’s death, and continued on and off for four years – which could fairly be described as one song divided into eleven movements; slow, thoughtful and probing but mournful piano melodies and a voice hushed but defiant. It may be a surprising offering from someone responsible for one of 2006’s most sheerly exultant releases – Metric’s Live It Out, an anxious and enraged but thrusting and energising record – but the emotions behind that album are deepened by the knowledge that she was working on this at the same time, collaborating with various sympathetic colleagues, including fellow Metrician Jimmy Shaw, Broken Social Scene’s Justin Peroff and Evan Cranley from Stars.

It is very definitely the first record of this autumn; have you noticed how moods, hues and angles alter and modify in music released in autumn? There are regretful echoes, intimations of finality, the echo on the piano the aural equivalent of the unusually golden (verging on brown) sun shades of October, approaching darkness. All of these weigh discreetly on this Soft Skeleton; "Our Hell" could be a slow-burning anthem of Tori Amos proportions except that Haines holds her emotion back amid crashing worlds ("My throat will ache, watching you turn/From me toward your friends") until the guitar lines become slowly heavier under the piano, more troubled and discordant. Strings are used in the sublime "Doctor Blind" – a warning against facile panaceas, by the tone of its words ("My baby’s got the lonesome lows/Don’t quite go away overnight/Doctor Blind just prescribe/The blue ones") – and with its devastating, swooping chord changes, the ethereal wonder once glimpsed in the early work of Goldfrapp attains its fullest promise. Similarly, a cascade of strings descends like a hastily pulled-back shower curtain which turns out to be made of acid at the beginning of "The Lottery," a rueful meditation on the tragedy which can’t quite be wiped out by general progress; despite the advances made by women, there remain those less-than-confident ones, the ones who will never quite fit in – such anguish in Haines’ cry of "Will we always be like little kids running group to group asking who loves me?" as the strings burn beneath her like the bras of her forebears. Elsewhere a Bley-ish, drunkenly loping horn chart drives the deep-soul-gone-white torch simmer of "Mostly Waving" (a mordant Stevie Smith variant with stinging rejoinders – "Don’t elaborate like that/You’ll frighten off the frat boys"). Both strings and horns blend to marvellous effect on the bemused but bereft "Reading In Bed"; as she wonders "With all the luck you’ve had/Why are your songs so sad?" – and then a blanket of violins and a compassionate French horn enter to console her burned, bluer soul.

The truest and deepest elements of the record, of course, arrive when it’s just (or mainly) Haines alone at the piano, and it’s here that Knives Don’t Have Your Back comes closest to being the intact link between Kate Bush’s "A Coral Room" and Cat Power’s You Are Free – especially on the shattering "Crowd Surf Off A Cliff." With just a hint of Leslie cabinet and Wurlitzer distortion, Haines circles in closer and closer, smaller and smaller, more and more painfully, on the song’s central axis of "Rather give the world away than wake up lonely," and it keeps coming back to that "I wake up lonely" again and again, as the chords break your heart and mind. As with Cat Power, she concentrates on small-scale, cyclical piano roundelays, all the better to foreground the emotions she is striving to articulate. All the way through, though, she tries to escape – "If you find me, hide me," "When you ‘phone me, tell me everything I did" – but those chords and those four words keep recurring like a nightmare of emotional microdevastation. No, we are not very far away from Sister Lovers.

…and all throughout the record, and emphasised or coloured in the booklet, are those "aaaaaahhhhhhhhh"s and "ooooooohhhhhh"s; like her father’s words for Escalator, they are not always articulated, but you are never allowed not to be reminded of their importance…
There are moments of bleak humour, as on "The Maid Needs A Maid" where Haines sardonically proclaims "Bros before hos is a rule/Read the guidelines" before swimming into a superficially lovely but Dorothy Parker-barbed plea for her own maid ("You won’t need a real job because I would love to pay for you"). And, on the crucial song "Nothing & Nowhere" she muses over keys minor about moving on and what a person really is ("Apartments are cages/I still don’t know what is permanent") before her voice and piano sweep so naturally and beautifully into a passionate major key declaration: "Some say our life is insane, but it isn’t insane on paper" – on those last three words she turns upwards and you have to kiss and embrace her. And that final, past-anguished "ask" ("Some say our life is insane but it isn’t insane to have to ask") is sustained and finally absorbed into sustained guitar feedback and freeform accordion trills.

And then there are the final two songs, in themselves such a stunning mini-suite of loss and redemption – "The Last Page" where, again over a desolate cycle of piano chords, turning in and in on itself like me in the bedroom in Oxford after it happened, she sings of escaping from "reality" to dreams of one now irretrievably lost – "Hover through the foggy vapors till I see you in a dream singing animals to sleep/By the way, it's over without you…/I’m leaving for a place from another time/Just to be near you" – and it still brings back those five autumns of mourning; how many times did I wake up like that and not want to wake up?

"Don’t become the one you hated" (it’s again) "Death is absolutely safe. A billion bibles mark the last page." At that juncture guitar and drums come in, almost bullying Haines into staying alive. Her cycle becomes more tormented: "Got to roll through the days/weeks/months without you here/I get a shock, shock hurts to heal" which she sings again and again and twists and sobs and shouts (variously) as though forcibly dragging herself back to her cylinder of moral oxygen. It still isn’t loud or harsh – nothing on this record rises much above moderate volume, though the decibel range of its emotional volume is boundless – but you can sense the prodding, the pushing, the urging, and you think: how not to become BSJ, how not to scream a shrug and end it because of some misguided arrogance that the world’s not good enough for your needs and your needs alone (he had, for fuck’s sake, a wife and two kids! It WASN’T just for him! But then Michael Bannard...), how to get back, to drag yourself, or allow yourself to be gladly dragged, out of the mess of mourning…and I KNOW that if it hadn’t been for you I would now be listening to this and feeling the same horrid, hollow gulf of nothingness that I knew far too bloody well, but the fact is now I listen to this and it tells me…

"Some part of you, too small to lose."

"The Winning" is the last track, and it’s the way out, and it caresses and cushions my soul with its unutterable generosity and promise…my God, Emily is so compassionate here…"Open your chest and take the heart from it"…"All of us, all of you counting to the last breath we take"…and then she sings, to me, and it is you singing to me, my loved one:

"What’s bad? We’ll fix it.
What’s wrong? We’ll make it alright, alright.
It’s gone, we’ll find it.

(compare with "The life that you thought through is gone" from "Crowd Surf Off A Cliff")

Takes so long, we’ve got time, all the time."

She is singing in my ear and she feels like we do ("We don’t know how to help, only know how to hound" she says of The World In General) and…"When you talk can I tape you?" and once again HOW DID SHE KNOW? and finally, and majestically, a regal princess indeed: "Don’t even visit that place, they’ll sharpen their teeth on your smile." After the minutest but vastest of pauses she returns, "I’m glad you didn’t. All our songs will be lullabies in no time."

And the way she sings it, and the beautiful, so childishly simple piano melody she plays behind it, makes me feel anything but alone…I don’t do "alone" any more, though God and you know that I still recognise it…it’s you and me, two souls together, each repairing the other, and it doesn’t matter whether THEY don’t know the extent of the damage but we know it in our bones, know that we have made each other whole again, and book or no book, what does it matter…what matters is you and me, married, sitting together, more alive and happy than anyone else on this planet, in our new home, peace and hope at last, and we’ve got each other and therefore have everything we will ever need…and it’s soft, soft, so soft, and everything has come back so softly and tenderly and profoundly…so the knives don’t have our back, never have done; what Emily Haines tells us is that we walk free from the wounds, and those wounds heal with gorgeous mutuality ("All of our scars are permanent…I’ll always love you, you’re mine" she sings on "Nothing & Nowhere," i.e. everything & everywhere)…and she gives us this hope, she doesn’t end it all, in fact is beginning it all…cherish her and the people and music which helped to create her, as those same people and that same music helped to create me…nearly thirty-five years later, exactly when I needed it, and I didn’t even have to call for it, it just came, knowing it was needed…that Escalator climbs back up to me and I step on it and at the top I fall and melt into you, welcoming and so, so fine and glorious.


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