Emily Haines – Choir of the Mind

by Jon Burke Rating:9 Release Date:2017-09-15

If Emily Haines’ latest album proves anything it’s that there is no justice in popular music. Haines offers listeners a thirteen track tour de force with Choir of the Mind that, by all rights, should be topping the charts at this very moment. Haines’ lyrical acumen, powerful songcraft and production skills alone put most modern pop chanteuses to shame. Moreover, Haines’ stints as a frontwoman for the dance-pop act Metric, and experimental post-rockers Broken Social Scene, have lent her solo work a toe-tapping pop charm blended with a raw indie honesty. Whether soaring over an infectious groove or barring her soul over little more than a mournful piano, Choir of the Mind proves Emily Haines could be pop music’s savior if only we’d give her the chance.

Choir of the Mind opens with the spare piano track, “Planets.” In a near-whisper, Emily Haines establishes a looped, ethereal atmospheric which fades in and out with the piano. The track, with its celestial references and drifting melody, elicits the feeling of floating away from one’s life. Over and over Haines croons: “People drift away/People drift away…” in tandem with the track’s ever-expanding keyboard swells and Haines gorgeous looped vocal harmonies. Though it may be a sleeper, “Planets” is a thing of beauty and intentionally belies what’s to come – a powerful, dynamic pop record.

The album’s second track, “Fatal Gift,” also opens with a serene, dreamy piano riff and Haines’ plaintive insistence that “The things you own/They own you.” Then, out of nowhere, a rhythm sets-in and suddenly the lonely little lullaby establishes an up-tempo groove. Ultimately “Fatal Gift” transforms into the kind of tight little synth-burner one would expect to find on a Blonde Redhead record. These kinds of sonic usurpations are present throughout Choir of the Mind as if to remind listeners that predictable pop music is nothing more than musical complacency.

Lyrically, Choir of the Mind is pure reflection. Topically, these are songs which get into the deep emotional weeds of relationships, break-ups and female identity. The result is some of Haines’ best writing to date. Frequently she will just toss-off a mantra like: “Love is my labor of life.” In one of the album’s most intense moments, Haines sings: “Set me free/Let me never feel/Let me never fear/Anything.” Throughout Choir of the Mind there seems to be an awareness on Haines’ part that success, however gratifying, is fleeting and a longing for something more meaningful.

Choir of the Mind seems to be in direct dialog with the pop divas currently occupying the top of the pop charts. While there is a nod to Rhianna on the album’s eponymous track, the rest of the record seems like a challenge to Haines’ contemporaries; a challenge to dig deeper and to seek meaning. One gets the sense that Emily Haines could play circles around Lady Gaga on the piano in part because Gaga’s self-consumption and need for attention distract from her craft. On the massive, “Legend of the Wild Horse,” Haines sings with a honeyed intensity: “I’ve been punched/Ten times or more/I swore I’d be your warrior.” The song’s epic pop aspirations shame the simplicity of Kesha, the saccharine sentimentality of Pink and the soulless calculation of Taylor Swift.

From the emotional balladry of “Wounded,” to the nightclub jazz of “Statuette,” Choir of the Mind is the rare record in which every track could be added to a mixtape without hesitation. In the album’s title track, “Choir of the Mind,” Haines offers up a spoken word poem set atop an increasingly complex rhythm of handclaps, finger snaps and what seems to be found-sound samples. It’s stunning and never comes off as corny – a major risk anytime spoken word is deployed post-1995. The song, adding layer-upon-layer of looping vocals, rhythms and effects is proof positive of the power of sonic experimentation. Frustratingly, the key to pop success in 2017 seems to revolve around eschewing experimentation and celebrates a willingness to stay confined within a narrow set of proven musical tropes. Choir of the Mind makes clear that despite Emily Haines’ slim chance of reaching the top of the pop charts, it’s not due to lack of trying.

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