Friday, December 1, 2017

Revisiting Knives Don't Have Your Back by Emily Haines

Solo albums or side projects by established musicians can be a mixed bag.  Sometimes they can bring a new level of notoriety to an artist, but they can also massively overestimate the public’s interest in any music a well-loved band member has to offer.  For every Peter Gabriel or Sting solo record, there are at least 4 members of KISS willing to put out stuff like this.  Done well, though, a good side project or solo album can give the listener a new appreciation for an artist they thought they already knew. This article focuses on one such album, namely Knives Don’t Have Your Back (2006) by Emily Haines.  Since Haines just released her new solo record (the excellent Choir of the Mind) I figured now was as good a time as any to explore how Knives fits in with the rest of her extensive discography.

Haines is mostly known as the vocalist and keyboard player for Canadian indie rock band Metric.  By 2006, Metric had released two albums and had been working for years at establishing a dedicated (and growing) fan base, first in New York City and Los Angeles, and then in Haines’ hometown of Toronto.  Their songs on these two albums (2003’s Old World Underground, Where are You Now?, and 2005’s Live It Out) deal with topics one might expect a young rock band to cover.  Songs such as “Handshakes” and “Patriarch on a Vespa” question the power structures of society and how we get trapped by them or rebel against them. There’s a smattering of anti-war songs (“Succexy”, parts of “I.O.U.”).  When dealing with relationships (a common topic for any musician to cover), a fairly cynical approach is often expressed.  Songs like “Too Little, Too Late”, “Live It Out”, and “Wet Blanket” describe affairs gone sour or about to end.  Happy songs are occasionally thrown in to the mix, such as “Love is a Place”, the short and sweet song that closes out Old World Underground…, But the positive and cynical are mixed, with a cynical or skeptical view of relationships often winning out.  This overall tone would start to change with the release of the album Fantasies in 2009, and I think Knives Don’t Have Your Back played a role in that artistic evolution.

Haines’ distinctive voice, as well as the prominent and creative use of synthesizers (also provided mostly by her) are what truly set Metric apart.  At an early stage in their career, she had already established herself as a charismatic band leader and prolific songwriter.  To Metric fans, it perhaps seemed inevitable that she would eventually record solo material, and she was certainly no stranger to side projects (both Haines and Metric guitarist Jimmy Shaw collaborate regularly with Broken Social Scene).  But what makes Knives Don’t Have Your Back unique is where and how it fits within Metric’s overall discography. We might tend to see solo projects as diversions from an artist’s usual gig.  Maybe a side project is an attempt to branch out and try something different or indulge in a new musical style. My point is that solo projects sometimes seem to be appreciated separately from an artist’s main act.  Mick Jagger’s solo albums are a good example- does anyone really consider them to be an essential part of the Rolling Stones’ output? 

I would argue that Knives was not a diversion for Haines, but a vital piece of the puzzle in understanding how Metric evolved as a band. The first curious thing about Knives is it’s timing.  Metric would eventually achieve greater success and notoriety (especially after the release of Fantasies), but 2006 might have seemed like a strange time for the lead singer of an up-and-coming band to release solo material. Metric had only released two albums at the time and were not widely known outside of Canada.  Therefore Knives cannot be seen as a cash-grab or a quickie release recorded only to capitalize off of a successful album.  This makes Knives feel more personal and urgent, like she had to get these songs out, regardless of whether or not anyone else wanted to hear them.  One could argue that she had nothing to lose in releasing it, but potentially nothing to gain either.  An album filled with sad songs might have seemed like a gamble after recording the defiant and angsty Live It Out.  Fans might have rejected it. The album did sell moderately well in Canada upon it’s initial release, but remains obscure pretty much everywhere else. I was a Metric fan for a while before I was aware of Knives Don’t Have Your Back, and I’ve met fans who have never heard it. It’s unfortunate that the album isn’t more well known, since it’s an impressive collection of songs that explore complex emotions and themes like depression and loss. I also believe the album is important because it marks a turning point in Metric’s overall songwriting and tone, signaling a shift from darker or more cynical topics to more positive and (dare I say) happy imagery.

(I should say before I go further that Knives Don’t Have Your Back is technically a side project (as opposed to a solo album).  Released under the name “Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton”, she recorded it with Metric guitarist Jimmy Shaw, Scott Minor, Justin Peroff, and Even Cranley.  But, she wrote all of the songs and several of the concerts she played to support the album were solo affairs (just her and a piano), so I consider it a solo album and refer to it as such throughout this post.)

The narrative that often surrounds Knives is that Haines wrote it after the sudden death of her father, poet Paul Haines, in 2003.  That unfortunate event might have been the catalyst for recording the album, but some of the songs had been written before that, and only a couple of the tracks (namely “Winning”) seem to deal specifically with death. (The album cover, though, is a direct reference to Escalator Over the Hill, the album Paul Haines recorded with jazz pianist Carla Bley in 1971).  Instead, the album deals with the sadness and depression that can follow loss.  The loss of friendships and relationships is tackled in a stark, often harrowing manner throughout the album’s 11 tracks.  Make no mistakes going in- Knives Don’t Have Your Back is an intensely sad album.  From the opening track, the somber “Our Hell”, Haines lays out her thesis that she develops and revisits throughout the album:  Being happy is all well and good, but when something happens that upends that happy life, you’re just left longing for it.  “Our hell is a good life,” she sings, not because the good life is hellish, but because the good life might only be temporary.  The songs are filled with reflections on disappointments and dashed expectations.  Recorded when Haines was in her early 30s, the downbeat tone of the lyrics may be a result of growing older and experiencing both the good and bad in life.  The brashness and confidence of youth eventually collide with reality.  “What I thought it was it isn’t now” she sings later in “Our Hell.”  Ruminations such as this make Knives Don’t Have Your Back the soundtrack to things coming undone.

Still for the music video for "Doctor Blind."
“Our Hell” is followed by “Doctor Blind”, the closest thing Knives had to a hit.  “Doctor Blind” was originally a Metric song, and Haines and Shaw recorded a demo version early in their career that never made it on to a Metric album (hear it here).  The interesting thing about it’s inclusion on Knives is how Haines recycles and repurposes the older song to make it fit the themes of the rest of the album.  Originally a more upbeat condemnation of consumerism, Haines re-worked the lyrics and instrumentation to create a stunningly accurate portrayal of depression, and from the first notes “Doctor Blind” feels uneasy.  It uses a slowed down, wonky time signature that makes the opening piano chords feel disjointed (seriously, try to tap your foot to the melody- it’s not easy).  The first verse reinforces Haines’ view of an upended world (“Toothless dentists/ Cops that kill”) but it’s the chorus that hits home. “My baby’s got the lonesome lows/ Don’t quite go away overnight/ Doctor Blind, just prescribe the blue ones/ If the dizzying highs don’t subside overnight/ Doctor Blind, just prescribe the red ones.”  The lonesome lows that don’t quite go away overnight.  Has there ever been a more accurate and succinct description of depression?  As someone who’s suffered through depression in the past, I think “Doctor Blind” captures the feeling perfectly.  It’s a touching depiction of depression as well as a condemnation of doctors who are unable to treat it or indifferent towards it.  That medicine didn’t work?  Just take this one.  We might be over-medicated but we’re not better.  “Doctor Blind” is easily the standout track on Knives, and I think it’s one of the best meditations on depression ever written, as well as one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.

 “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff” comes next, and with this song Haines doubles down on the sadness.  If “Doctor Blind” is about being depressed, then “Crowd Surf” is about being really, really depressed.   Played only on the piano and sung with slightly distorted vocals, the song is stripped down and ethereal.  Some of the darkest imagery on the album is conjured here, and it makes for a devastatingly sad song. It starts with a lamentation for a lost lover: “Rather give the world away/ than wake up lonely/ Every day and every way/ I see you with me” she sings, but the song soon slips in to other regrets as well.  It’s hard to see some lines as anything other than a reappraisal of her choice to pursue a music career.  “Are we breathing?/ Are we breathing?/ Are we wasting our breath?/ It won’t be enough to be rich/ All the babies tucked away in their beds/ We’re out here screaming.”   To me, the whole song really gets to the heart of what it’s like to suffer from depression.  When you’re depressed, you aren’t just sad about one thing- you’re sad about everything.  You feel that every choice you’ve made in your life has been the wrong one, and that’s really what the whole song’s about.  I just wrote that “Doctor Blind” is one of the saddest songs ever written, but “Crowd Surf” beats it by a mile.

“Crowd Surf Off a Cliff” is a difficult song, both lyrically and musically.  It’s disjointed and has no clear structure.  Lines are re-arranged and recycled as both verse and chorus, so you never really know what’s coming next.  Just when you think it’s going to end, the piano picks up again and carries the song a little further, approximating the swirling sense of dread that accompanies depression.  This meandering causes it to be the longest song on the album, clocking in at almost 6 minutes.  I don’t think this is wholly accidental.  Listening to the album in it’s entirety is like going on a journey with Haines, and the songs are placed in the order they’re in for a reason.   When producing Metric’s albums, both Haines and Jimmy Shaw put time in to choosing the order of the songs, and they intend the album to be a statement that’s listened to all the way through, not consumed only in singles. Therefore, I think there’s a rationale for front-loading the album’s saddest songs and having the listener hear them first.  Sinking to the depths of “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff” would be unbearable if Haines stayed there, wallowing in the song’s dark themes for another 30 minutes.  Instead, the tone of the album begins to perceivably shift about halfway through.  The melancholy feeling remains, but a kernel of hope starts to work it’s way in, allowing Knives to end on an oddly uplifting note.

This shift starts to become apparent at about the half way mark with the song “Mostly Waving”.  Energized by a horn section and lyrics that are more cynical than sad, it’s here that the sense of humor seen on previous albums comes to the surface.   Of all the songs on Knives, “Mostly Waving” is probably most like a Metric track.  When Haines sings “Don’t talk like that/ You’ll frighten off the frat boys/ use your baby talk” it’s easy to believe that this is the same woman who wrote “Combat Baby”.  With the album’s tonal shift underway by this point, songs closer to the end approach problems from a different point of view, and perhaps start to question some of the doubts she expressed earlier.

“Nothing and Nowhere” is a melancholy song about reluctance to settle down with places or people, but also seems to refute some of the doubts she raised in “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff” Parts of it still seems like a criticism of music as a choice of profession, but this time the criticisms are coming from others, not from within. “Some say our hair is in our eyes,” she sings. “Some say we’re out of our little minds/ Some say our life is insane.”  Here the “some say” is the important part.  The criticism has become externalized.  She counters that criticism with “But it isn’t insane on paper.”  Add up your accomplishments and things start looking pretty good, or at least better than they did.   

Image taken from the music video for
"Poster of a Girl"
Now perhaps it’s dangerous to hear too much autobiographical information in anyone’s songs, and this album is no exception.  Songwriters are story tellers, after all, and they create fictions that can’t always be taken literally. Haines has stated in multiple interviews that she tries not to be too autobiographical when writing lyrics, but does strive to convey genuine emotion in her songs.  So, perhaps it’s foolhardy to suggest that any of the lyrics here document a real part of her life, but she drops enough clues to make it hard to see this song in particular as anything other than personal commentary.  The line about “our hair is in our eyes” is the one I think is important here.  Far from just a generalized criticism of musicians being “crazy longhairs,” I see this line as describing Haines herself.   Recordings of older Metric performances capture her playing style at the time, and as she stands on stage and moves her head rhythmically to the beat, one can see that her hair is truly in her eyes (see picture at right).  Far from being allegory or allusion, I think this song marks the point where Haines consents to her fate and starts to begrudgingly accept her career in music.  This maybe wouldn’t be so remarkable for any other musician, but this very theme is one that she will repeatedly return to over in over again in her post-Knives songs (especially on the album Synthetica).

The closing track is the song that ends the album’s journey, bringing an amount of closure to the overall narrative.  “Winning” is, in my opinion, the song that most directly deals with the death of Haines’ father.  The lyrics are filled with ideas of wanting to hold on to something you know won’t last and that you’re afraid of losing forever (“When you talk can I tape you?”).   Although the feelings of loss conjured here are at perhaps their most tangible, the chorus is hopeful and stirring.  As Haines’ stark piano notes reach a crescendo, she sings “What’s bad, we’ll fix it/ What’s wrong, we’ll make it alright.”  But, these comforting lines are tempered by the realization that as much as you may want to help someone, that might be impossible.  “We don’t know how to help” she sings. “Only know how to hound.”  And, when we’ve lost someone close to us, we have to keep going, as hard as that might be. “Nose to the grindstone/ grindstone to the ground.” 


With the mournful but hopeful lyrics, she seems to reach a balance- or at least a shaky truce- between losing a loved one, but still holding on to their memory. “It’s gone/ so long” she sings, saying goodbye but knowing that the connection will never truly be gone, continuing with “We’ve got time/ all the time.”  This realization seems to come with an amount of peace, or at least acceptance.  As she lets go and says farewell, she assures the listener “All our songs will be lullabies in no time.”  After exploring heartache and depression for the previous ten songs, at the end comes a rejection of that which causes pain.  The things in your life that hurt you won’t protect you.  Knives don’t have your back.  As she vocalizes over the last notes of the album, her fragile voice starts to crack. Whether because of sadness, joy, or just relief, it’s a beautifully human moment and the perfect end to an album that starts off as depressing but ends with an unexpectedly uplifting sendoff.

After the release of Knives, Haines embarked on a solo tour to promote the record and it’s follow-up, the EP What is Free to a Good Home?, released in 2007.  The tour was stretched out over two years, starting in September of 2006 and ending in March of 2008.  Haines was still actively playing with Metric throughout that time, and the band was beginning to navigate the protracted writing, recording and mixing process that eventually culminated with the release of Fantasies in 2009.  Therefore, her solo dates were sprinkled in between her other commitments, giving the Knives tour an unconventional structure.  She played a handful if shows in late 2006, but the bulk of the tour took place in January of 2007.  Between January 4 and January 23, she played a whopping 19 shows in 20 days across the U.S. and Canada.  After a brief European tour in the summer of 2007 she returned to North America and played a few final concerts, the last of which was on March 30, 2008 in Toronto. Since the last dates were played over two years after the first ones, her relationship to the material definitely changed along the way, and this can be seen in some of the video evidence available on line.

Even though these concerts didn’t take place at a time when everybody had cameras on their cell phones (the iPhone was still a relatively new thing in 2007), several performances of varying quality were captured on film or as audio recordings.  The best and most complete concert recording from the tour was made in Washington D.C. on January 10, 2007 by NPR (audio only), and it’s still archived on their site (you can listen to it and download it here).  This recording is a fascinating listen for several reasons.  Since cell phone recordings were rare at the time (or low quality), this concert remains the only source of a high-quality professional live recording of songs such as “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff," "Reading in Bed," and "The Lottery.". (This may change when she tours to support her new album in the coming weeks- she’s been performing songs off of Knives in her recent shows).  Also, it was taped only a few months after the album’s release, and her connection to the songs as well as the cohesive nature of the album is still fresh.  She plays the whole album, almost in order (she slightly rearranges some songs in the middle section), and this allows the revelations of “Winning” to close out the show on an uplifting note.

Her stretched out solo tour format allowed her live performances to evolve, and later dates didn’t always follow the same format of the NPR recording.  As Knives aged, Haines’ relationships with the songs seemed to change as well.   Living with the songs on and off for over two years and revisiting their darker themes must have been emotionally draining.  She also used some of the dates as an opportunity to celebrate her father’s life, reminiscing about him while she bantered with the crowd between songs.  This can be observed in some video clips that can still be found on YouTube.  In this clip, made during a concert at Toronto’s Harbourfront Center in July of 2007, she talks about her father’s poetry and her relationship with him, and it’s clear she’s getting choked up as she wipes away tears. Knives is an emotional album and reliving those songs over and over must have become difficult.  Even today, they can bring up troubling feelings.  After a recent performance of “Doctor Blind,” she commented that singing it still conjures up everything she was feeling when she wrote it a decade ago.

This is perhaps most evident in the video that was captured from the last date for the tour, a show at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theater on March 30, 2008.  This concert was legendary or infamous depending on who you ask, and I want to spend some time analyzing this particular show for two reasons: First, I think her performance was unfairly maligned or misunderstood by some viewers, and secondly I think her statements made during the performance, and her reaction to the songs from Knives, helped guide the path Metric would take over the following decade.

Part 1. She perfoms "Anarchy Song" and "Something to Prove"

First, a word about the videos that capture this performance (all of which I’ll link to here). It was recorded by Mobile Jam Fest, which was a Canadian organization that helped aspiring filmmakers (the organization is now defunct, but some of their website is saved on the Internet Archive).  The concert has been edited so as to cut Haines’ between-song banter with the crowd, so any song intros or backstory are missing. Eight full songs (and part of a ninth) are recorded, comprising approximately 40 minutes of the concert (the videos comprise about 30 minutes of live material, and I’m estimating song intros, applause, crowd banter, etc. to be about 10 additional minutes). As far as I can tell, the songs are presented in the order they were performed. The last part of the show (perhaps the most important part to me here) is also absent, though a few bits remain in the form of videos shot by other concert attendees.  By watching the surviving clips, a casual observer might think it’s a perfectly normal, though incomplete, concert. 

Part 2: "Dont' Move" and "No Light"

The first thing that’s readily apparent from the recording is that songs from Knives Don’t Have Your Back have been dropped almost completely from her set list.  Instead, she plays mostly new material. These new songs were never formally released, and the Mobile Jam Fest film is the only time most of them were professionally recorded in any capacity.  The 5 parts that make up the concert video are an important record because they show an artist in transition.  The newer songs aren’t nearly as depressing as the tracks on Knives (though some are quite melancholy), and Haines is clearly having fun with the crowd as she plays them, encouraging the audience to sing along and making jokey asides between verses.   There are also other interesting aspects to her songwriting that become apparent while watching the concert more than 10 years after the fact.  About halfway through, Haines brings her opening act, the singer Lyra Brown, out on stage and they play a song together called “Sweet Caroline.”  What any Metric fan will recognize listening to this today is that it’s clearly a first draft of “The Shade,” a song Metric wouldn’t record until 6 years (and 3 albums) later.  It’s perfectly normal for artists to work this way, using old material as spare parts to reconstruct new songs (as she did with “Doctor Blind”) but to be able to see those formative steps really sheds light on her songwriting process.

Part 3: "Destroy to Create" and "Sweet Caroline" w/ Lyra Brown

During the concert, Haines acknowledges that the songs she’s playing might not be what the crowd is expecting.  As she plays the opening notes of the Knives track “Detective Daughter” (7 songs in) she comments “that’s familiar, right?”  Musicians try out new material in a concert setting all the time, but cutting most of the songs from the album you’re ostensibly touring to promote is a little odd. This a clear sign that the songs were perhaps becoming too tough to perform live, or at least signal that she was ready to move on from the material.

Part 4: "Detective Daughter"

After playing “Detective Daughter” and “Mostly Waving”, Haines started playing “Doctor Blind.” A couple of minutes in to the song, she had a sort of epiphany.  Before starting the second verse, she just stopped playing and declared “I don’t want to play these songs anymore”. This declaration is edited out of the Mobile Jam Fest recording, but Haines herself describes the event in the following way (from her recent Reddit Ask Me Anything [AMA] session) “…in the middle of the performance I just felt this wave of relief and an overwhelming sense that the fog of grief was lifting and at that moment I absolutely could not play one more single note of that dark dark music I had been inhabiting so I brought up members of the audience to take over for me. It was one of the best musical experiences of my life, the pure ‘fuck it’ of it.”  After stepping away from “Doctor Blind” (along with the rest of the songs off Knives), she improvised the rest of the show.  Evidence of this is hard to find, but reports I’ve read describe her as wading in to the crowd and just talking to her fans for a while. I don’t know how many songs were played during this part of the concert, but to close out the show, she brought a participant from the audience up on stage and he played guitar for an impromptu rendition of the song “Live It Out” (evidence of this last part 

Part 5: "Mostly Waving" and "Doctor Blind" (incomplete)

As one might imagine, the concert and it’s unexpected ending didn’t go over so well with all critics and fans.  Reading through the comments section on many YouTube videos of the performance seems to indicate that it’s remembered relatively fondly by people who were there, but critics of the performance consider it a trainwreck. This review, from the website BlogTO (TO is the common abbreviation for Toronto), is particularly harsh.  Now, I wasn’t there and the concert video is incomplete, but the article’s characterization of the entire concert as a shambling mess just isn’t backed up by the evidence that remains.  Describing the whole show as a series of fumbled, unfinished songs is not only inaccurate, but misses the point as to why the concert went off the rails to begin with.  Haines is a solid live performer and the video doesn’t lie. The Mobile Jam Fest recordings show her delivering almost 40 minutes of material before going off script.  She might be playing songs unfamiliar to most people in the crowd, but she’s playing them well, and having fun while doing so.  These recordings contradict the article, which describes her as stopping midway through songs and people shouting out song requests, and then accuses her of not being able to perform or finish her own songs without help from the audience.  I don’t doubt that the second half of the concert was probably a little messy, but it was only half of her total performance.  The concert had a pretty definitive split when she reached “Doctor Blind,” and that just isn’t mentioned here.  There was also a reason for the chaos, which she stated to the crowd when she declared she couldn’t play one more note of those songs. Her actions were the result of a conscious (though spontaneous) rejection of sadness.

One part of the concert that the BlogTO review is especially critical of is Haines’ duet with her opening act Lyra Brown, who the reviewer says was  “obviously taking cues from Haines, almost watching for her approval at every turn. At least Brown had her shit together.”  I’ve watched that performance a number of times while writing this post, and I really don’t see any of that.  It’s a little rough around the edges and Brown does seem to be taking cues from Haines, but why wouldn’t she?- it’s Haines’ song.  The song speeds up as they play it, and Haines realizes they’re both playing a little too quickly and she tries to reset the tempo by counting out the meter. But despite this, the song doesn’t suffer.  Both performers are able to adjust to the tempo changes. Neither artist stops playing during the song.  Neither artist forgets the lyrics or piano chords.  At no point does Haines seem lost, on the contrary she seems to be helping the younger artist through the song.

The version of “Live It Out” played with one of the audience members (above) also shows that Haines was in full control of her material.  It’s a little sloppy, but sweet.  Again the criticism that Haines can’t remember her own songs doesn’t stand up, and she proves here that she knows the song so well she can have a little fun at her helper’s expense.  “Live It Out” has a slightly non-traditional song structure.  It has verses and a chorus, but the chorus, sung twice in the song, changes lyrically each time (I consider the chorus to be the parts that begins with the line “It’s a good story”, occurring at 1:06 and 2:09 in the album version).  The first time the chorus is sung, one of the last lines is “Now I’m never gonna see you again,” but when the chorus repeats the line changes to “Now you’re never gonna be here again.”  When her helper gets to the first chorus at the Phoenix performance, he sings the wrong line and Haines catches it immediately, joking with him by saying “Are you never going to be here again?” (or something like that- the audio isn’t great).  Everyone laughs and they continue the song.  When they get to the second chorus, Haines purposely switches the lines herself, getting in a playful jab at her young accompanist.  It’s a subtle gag, and I’m probably not doing it justice with this description (just watch the video), but one that Metric fans can pick out and have a laugh over.  It shows that Haines is able to joke around with her own material.  As Shakespeare might say, she clearly knows a hawk from a handsaw.

The crowd is going along with this as well, cheering and laughing along with her.  This also seems to contradict the BlogTO article, which describes the audience as being filled with befuddled Metric fans ready to swear off her music forever after a non-traditional performance.  I can completely understand why some people in attendance might have been unhappy with the show, and I know that several people there that night were disappointed in her performance.  Perhaps witnessing an on-stage catharsis wasn’t what they expected when they bought a ticket.  But, based on the video evidence, she seems to be overwhelmingly supported by her fans.  Toronto is friendly territory for Haines and she clearly felt safe expressing herself in this forum.  On that stage, Haines and sadness parted company, and this would characterize her songwriting as she moved forward. These effects can still be heard ten years later.

Fantasies was released in 2009 (about a year after the Phoenix concert) and it’s clear from the first notes that the dark songs off Knives Don’t Have Your Back have been left behind, but she’s certainly learned from the experience.  The album begins with the anthemic “Help I’m Alive,” and this acts as the perfect intro song.  In it, she outlines her hesitation moving forward (a theme perhaps carried over from Knives), “I tremble,” the song begins, “They’re gonna eat me alive.” but that initial fear is later paired with a strong conviction that she’s doing the right thing, stating “My regrets are few.”  Some lines even seem to be directly answering her critics. “If my life is mine,” she sings, “what shouldn’t I do?”  She acknowledges that there are still expectations placed upon her which may cause contradictions (“Hard to be soft, tough to be tender”), but at the same time a new understanding of herself seems to have been reached.  She expresses these complex emotions in a track that is as much a mission statement as it is a pop song.

“Help I’m Alive” is far from an outlier on Fantasies.  Whereas tracks like “Satellite Mind” and “Gold Guns Girls” would have fit comfortably on Live It Out, there are plenty of other songs that lead in a new direction, achieving a level of exuberance not previously seen on a Metric album.  Yes, there are songs that are downers, such as the bittersweet “Collect Call”, but these songs are tempered by the likes of “Sick Muse,” with it’s soaring sing-along-ready chorus, and “Stadium Love,” the record’s rousing closer.   Fantasies  is interesting because it looks both backwards and forwards.  It contains all of the things that identify it as a Metric album, such as their distinctive guitar and synthesizer work (by this time, they had developed a distinctive sound), but also seems to be moving somewhere else, especially lyrically.  The anthems of Live It Out are confrontational and antagonistic. The songs on Fantasies are self-aware, personal, and confident.  The Emily Haines of Knives Don’t Have Your Back is nowhere to be seen.  On “Detective Daughter,” she stared at her reflection in the mirror and pleaded “please don’t be me.” Now she was declaring that “all the blondes are fantasies.”

While listening to Fantasies, it’s clear that Metric was evolving.  This evolution is perhaps most evident in the transformation of the song “Gimme Sympathy.”  Metric worked on Fantasies for a long time, and as early as 2007 they were playing songs in concert that would eventually feature on the album.  Some of these songs, like “Stadium Love”, appear to have come in to this world fully perfectly formed.  Others, like “Twilight Galaxy” or “Sick Muse,” originally sounded a little different, but were tweaked slightly for the album version.  “Gimme Sympathy” is different.  In it’s original form, it sounds almost nothing the version Metric fans are familiar with (demo version posted below).

“Gimme Sympathy” was around for a long time before it was officially recorded, and the earliest video I can find of a live performance dates from September of 2007.  The original version, which I’ll refer to as the demo version, is also sometimes referred to as “The Hooks” or “Hooks”, although by 2007 the title had officially been changed to “Gimme Sympathy.”  Both musically and lyrically, the demo version is almost completely different from the album version.  The lyrics of the demo version traverse territory Metric had covered before, speaking about relationships in a cynical light.  Lines like “There’s no romance without finance” and “Meet me at the gates of Hell/ I’m on the guest list” make the song somewhat nihilistic.  The chorus, which begins with “I can feel it in my bones,” remains mostly unchanged, and the familiar line of “Who’d you rather be?/ The Beatles or the Rolling Stones” is still here, but there’s a major change at the end.  The chorus of the demo version concludes with “Come on baby play me something like ‘She’s Come Undone.’”

“Undun” is a song by The Guess Who, and it’s pretty downbeat, detailing a woman’s self-destruction.  I didn’t know until researching this post that this is the official name of the song.  I always thought it was called “She’s Come Undone,” and plenty of online sources refer to it this way as well.  There’s no doubt, though, that this is the song Metric is referring to in the demo of “Gimme Sympathy.”  At about the 2:40 mark in the above video there is a musical callback to The Guess Who song when Haines sings “Didn’t know what she was looking for/ But when she found what she was looking for/ It was too late.”  Directly referencing a song such as “Undun” makes sense in the context of the original lyrics.  The Metric song sounds more upbeat, with it’s hand claps and sing-songy background vocals, but it’s ultimately a downer, just like “Undun.”  

“Gimme Sympathy” was performed in it’s original version for a while before it changed. Performances throughout 2007 included the early version of the song.  By the start of 2008, though, the song had changed.  It seems to have been re-written all at once, since there isn’t a slow evolution of the lyrics or music that can be observed in live recordings.  In October of ’07 they perform the demo version, then there’s a three-month gap where I couldn’t find any performances of the song.  By February of ’08 the song had been mostly re-worked, discarding the nihilistic lyrics in favor of a song that has a different, more positive, theme.  The line at the end of the chorus referencing “She’s Come Undone” is still present, though.  It would be a couple of more months until the final alteration (and perhaps the most important, tonally) was made to the song.

In it’s new form, “Gimme Sympathy” eschews the negative (and frankly, slightly raunchy) lyrics of the original version and replaces them with something that could be described as hesitantly positive.  Like on “Nothing and Nowhere,” some of the lines seem to make references to Haines’ experience as a musician, as well as her growing reputation within that field.  “Get hot/ get to close to the flame. / Wild open space/ talk like an open book. / Sign me up.” (It’s perhaps worth noting here that the song gelled in to it’s final form and included the line ‘talk like an open book’ shortly before her solo performance at the Phoenix, where she did just that.)  But, it isn’t so specific as to exclude the listener from finding inspiration in the words and ideas she presents.  It’s a song about taking chances and making choices (“Who’d you rather be?”), but it’s also a reflection on the past.  Did things happen so fast that she missed something along the way?  The song isn’t an apology per se, but a plea for understanding. The search for a confirmation of self worth, which the song is ultimately about, is something anyone can relate to.  In this new version of the song, when she asks for sympathy you’re willing to give it.

Perhaps the most significant change made to the song was the last one.  In late 2008, less than a year before the release of Fantasies, the reference to “Undun” was removed.  Now, instead of “She’s Come Undone”, Haines sings “Come on baby play me something like ‘Here Comes the Sun.’’  One could argue that perhaps Haines just wanted a Beatles-specific reference in the song, since they’re already mentioned earlier in the chorus, but I think it goes deeper than that.  Referencing “Undun” worked within the context of the demo version of the song, but as the song became more positive it really didn’t fit anymore.  “Undun” contains the lines “She’s lost the sun/ she’s come undone.”  Replacing it with “Here Comes the Sun” fits the new tone of the song and seems to hint at Haines’ experience with Knives Don’t Have Your Back.  ”Here Comes the Sun” is about going through a dark time and coming through to the light on the other side.  There’s perhaps no better parallel to Haines’ descent in to the dark themes of Knives, only to publicly reject that sadness and embrace positivity. With this addition, the tone of the whole song is brightened, and the entire album is better off for it.  Placed right in the middle of Fantasies, a song that could have been a cynical downer is instead transformed in to the album’s emotional anchor. The song’s themes of asking for forgiveness, while still reluctant to apologize, would continue to filter in to her songwriting, perhaps reaching it’s apex with the release of Synthetica in 2012.

On Synthetica, the ideas introduced in bits and pieces on Knives and Fantasies are fleshed out and formed into an album-long treatise that functions as both wistful reflection and unapologetic acceptance of one’s self.  It’s almost a concept album in it’s thematic tightness.  The overarching ideas of the album deal with weighty issues like identity, one’s past, and the impact of one’s actions (both positive and negative).  Though Synthetica is overwhelmingly positive, echoes of Knives Don’t Have Your Back can still be felt.  On “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff,” Haines sunk to a pretty dark place, and here some of those same ideas are re-visited and re-appraised.  On “Crowd Surf,” everyone’s tucked into their beds while Haines is “out here screaming.”  On “Artificial Nocturne,” the album’s defiant opening track, she seems to reject that idea and now embraces the night.  Perhaps the closest connection exists between “Crowd Surf” and “Breathing Underwater.”  Both songs frame the experience of being a musician in similar ways.  In “Crowd Surf,” she asks “Are we breathing?/ are we wasting our breath?”  In “Breathing Underwater” she asks “Is this my life?/ Am I breathing underwater.”  Both songs question her life, but one is overwhelmingly more positive.  “Breathing Underwater” seems to start off by once again mentioning other people’s criticism of her: “They were right when they said we were breathing underwater/ Out of place all the time in a world that wasn’t mine to take.” But, it’s the next line that makes all the difference and tilts the song in a more inspirational direction: “I’ll wait.”  Instead of wallowing in depression or past mistakes, the songs on Synthetica acknowledge that mistakes may have been made, but repentance is possible (“Steal once, pay twice”). The positive nature of the album in carried until the last line, when Haines states “I’ve got nothing but time, and the future is mine.”

I conclude this lengthy post by admitting that I could be completely wrong.  The writing and recording of Knives Don’t Have Your Back may have had nothing to do with Metric’s evolution as a band.  And to give credit where it’s due, songwriting is a group effort for the band and Jimmy Shaw, bassist Joshua Winstead, and drummer Joules Scott-Key all play a hand in crafting their music.  Therefore the accomplishments of Fantasies, Synthetica, and 2015’s Pagans in Vegas are not Haines’ alone (though she is their primary lyricist).  Artistic evolution and creation is rarely a bolt-from-the-blue event, and while I think Knives played a part in their evolution, other factors were probably just as important.  Growing older and gaining experience as well as finding a level of success in your artistic endeavors can all contribute to positive change over time.  Still, it’s interesting to think about what Metric would sound like today had Knives had never existed. 

1 comment:

  1. This was an awesome read and I'm so glad to have found it! Thank you for this history and analysis of one of my favorite artists!


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