This past fall marked the first new full-length from Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton in over a decade. Having left fans yearning for more after 2006's Knives Don't Have Your Back and its companion EP, 2007's What Is Free to a Good Home?, the Metric frontwoman returned to the Soft Skeleton's sombre and vulnerable sound once more with Choir of the Mind. Last night (December 5), Haines and her band amplified the naturally bare bones structure of the Soft Skeleton's songs, filling Massey Hall's beautiful room with their lush sound.
Hey Ocean! guitarist David Beckingham opened the night, performing an intimate set accompanied by a keys player and three exceptionally talented women on strings. Beckingham's gratitude for the gig (one he had only been offered a week before, he told the respectfully engaged crowd) was evident and genuine. Had he not mentioned how hastily the performance was put together, it would have been impossible to tell.
Haines entered the stage shortly after 9 p.m. to a thunderous roar of cheers. Props were littered around to best resemble a bedroom, complete with a joltingly loud alarm clock. A voiceover of Haines echoed over the speakers, serving as her inner monologue that, in the performative context of the stage show, she struggled to be more powerful than. "You deserve every bad thing that's happened to you. You are going to hurt like hell forever," it taunted her until she eventually settled at her place of solitude — in front of the piano.
New track "Wounded" and Knives cut "Crowd Surf Off a Cliff" saw Haines performing solo, enchanting the audience with nothing but her airy vocals and each haunting stroke of the keys, until she was joined by the Soft Skeleton band. Her Broken Social Scene bandmates Justin Peroff and Sam Goldberg accompanied her on drums and bass, respectively, while her fellow BSS and Metric partner Jimmy Shaw played guitar.
The stage layout made for what was both a visually and sonically appealing experience; Haines sat behind her piano with Peroff facing her from his kit, while Shaw and Goldberg sat side-by-side on stools where the drummer would typically be positioned. It felt like we, as audience members, were lucky enough to have stumbled upon the group of longtime friends having a jam session in the comfort of their own space.
Hearing Haines revitalize deep cuts from Knives and What Is Free to a Good Home?, which resonated with listeners so many years ago and providing them with a sense of solace and understanding, was truly beautiful. The live performance of "Sprig," a poem originally written by her late father Paul Haines that she then set to music on What Is Free to a Good Home?, was a notably raw and poignant moment of the set.
Following a standing ovation and persistent encouragement for an encore, Haines returned to the stage alone just as she had begun the night. Choir of the Mind's soaring, soul-baring "Strangle All Romance," on which Haines' vocals are the only instrument, sounded even grander live, softly echoing against the room's walls. Then, she closed for good with Choir's title track, an incredibly moving number that hears Haines powerfully reciting passages from Savitri, a poem by Indian guru Sri Aurobindo and the source of her middle name.
One line best describes Haines, and it was confirmed upon hearing her confidently deliver it live: "The unfinished creation of a changing soul in a body changing with the inhabitant." The eloquent soul of Emily Haines is forever evolving and, as such, creating meaningful art.