It’s been 10 years since we last heard from Emily Haines – Emily Haines the solo artist, that is. In the intervening decade she’s been more than busy with Metric, Broken Social Scene and more than a dozen other credits somehow crammed in between. Spreading her vocal talents across a myriad of different projects has done little to tax her creative acumen, as Choir of the Mind makes abundantly clear. Credited to Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton, the majority of the album’s hour-long run time features little more than Haines’ voice accompanied by melancholic piano and the occasional electronic interjection.

Working with bandmate James Shaw, Haines convened on Metric’s studio to work on the songs and sounds that would become Choir of the Mind. This pared down approach is wholly evident throughout, as none of the 13 tracks rises much above a conversational whisper. Of course there’s no reason for bombast when you’re working with a voice as pure and crystalline as Haines’. Layering herself, she builds up a choir (of the mind?) of Haineses on “Fatal Gift,” building from a rather frenetic electronic beat into a vocals-and-piano-only midsection that allows her talents to truly shine. “Haven’t we made enough for a living wage?” she asks, sounding more than a little like Jenny Lewis circa Rilo Kiley’s under-appreciated More Adventurous. She continues: “We accept the fatal gift/ A soup stone for our stove/ And a blindfold for our tears/ Paying for a living wage/ Know it’s a deceptive deal/ We accept the fatal gift/ They hover over where we live/ The things you own, they own you.”

“Nihilist Abyss” could just as easily be a lost Beach House track, Haines sounding very much like Victoria Legrand at her most emotionally vulnerable and downtrodden, accompanied by little more than a stately piano line. This isn’t to downplay Haines’ own skills as a vocalist, rather it serves to show she is in very good company with Choir of the Mind. Given the instrumental sparseness of the album, it would be all too easy to slip into painful navel-gazing; a sad girl at the piano reciting high school-level poetic profundities. But Haines is an adept lyricist, turning in fine work throughout, each song deceptively dense and requiring repeated listens to truly sink in. “When I walk alone I’m walking with you,” she sighs on “Nihilist Abyss,” before following it up with: “When I sleep alone I’m sleeping with you/ I meant what I said back then/ But the danger now is all my anger/ Spinning out of orbit toward the nihilist abyss.”

While it’s not all interminably bleak, the gist of Choir of the Mind’s introspection seems to be summed up in “Minefield of Memory” as she sings, “I’ve been living in a hole/ Everybody has to know/ All the ways I didn’t deal with everything right.” The album certainly offers a litany of autobiographically informed couplets that, if they are indeed based in reality, show Haines in a retrospective mood. “From the bedroom to the ballroom/ To the basements I’ve outgrown/ I only wanted to be known,” she explains on “Siren,” doubling down and admitting that, “I only want what I can’t reach.”

Closing track “RIP” again features an all-Haines choir, this time sounding not unlike the Beatles’ “Because” as her voice intertwines, rising and falling with the changes. It’s a starkly beautiful moment of quiet contemplation and the perfect closing statement to this powerfully understated work of heartbreaking splendor. “This is over, I’m so not dead/ I withhold my consent to be praised/ Not about to fade out in the open,” she lets us know on the song’s opening verse, showing herself to be just as self-aware as one would guess given the preceding 12 tracks of stark contemplation and self-reflection. Though it takes some time to truly sink in, Choir of the Mind manages to do so with gentle aplomb rather than with the baseball bat Haines holds on the album’s cover.

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