If Emily Haines was an animal, she’d be a swan. Elegant, graceful and symbolic maybe, but get too close and you’ll probably get bitten. She has the hush-hush voice of something ethereal, almost spirit-like in its delivery, which is comforting, like the warm feeling you get when you drink whiskey or being in bed when it’s cold outside. But when you parry this with an often poignant, sometimes political subject matter, there is a definite sense of anxiety and mistrust which forms the spine of Knives Don’t Have Your Back, a feeling that underneath wistful piano keys and that soothing tone, bigger demons lie.
Nothing emphasises this further than the way that Haines’ songs leave an initial imprint, but then build and burn an image onto your brain. It would be easy to put this record on in your background somewhere, enjoy the soft melodies, well produced arrangements and general ambience and relax. Perfect, but you’d miss nearly every nuance, everything that makes this a wonderful collection of downbeat, intimate torch-songs. You could even assume that this is Haines’ comedown album after the party atmospherics of her usual band Metric, and the wonderfully chaotic Broken Social Scene, who she has provided guest vocals for. But you’d be mistaken.
The key to any singer-songwriter is to create the feeling that their inner turmoil and issues are as real as the rest of us. Where fear, love, desire and any other span of human emotions are sung back at us, you have to believe the artist. Listening to the opening track here Our Hill, it’s ascending Joni Mitchell piano, fat bass notes and chorus line : What I thought it was, it isn’t now’ or single Doctor Blind’s first line : ‘ a lack of light, a hollow sea/poison beaches, limousines’, you’re whisked away to a world where everyday paranoia is manifested in musical form. More importantly, the music is as effortless and beguiling as the subject matter and ultimately, heart-felt and believable.
There are some truly exceptional examples of song-writing here. Whether intentional or not, Crowd Surf Off A Cliff sounds like listening to Cat Power or Tori Amos with your head underwater, as reverberated vocals clash with off-kilter piano chords. Mostly Waving has the brass section from a jazz ensemble playing during an apocalypse. Nothing and Nowhere is a beautiful tale of isolation, perfectly arranged, and an easy contender for Knives Don’t Have Your Back’s highlight.
It’s difficult to search for flaws here. If you don’t like introspection, self turmoil and insightful personal references when you turn on the stereo you’re best to steer clear. If you’re expecting something similar to where you heard her last, you’ll likely be disappointed. And your really do need to open your ears and listen. But given time and attention, this album will let you experience just what Emily Haines does best and so convincingly: dressing up something dark as something light, sounding like a comforter whilst instilling you with self-doubt and being almost blasé about how effortless it seems.