SAN FRANCISCO — Metric frontwoman Emily Haines‘ inner monologue would probably get along with Chance the Rapper’s. On his previous tour, in 2016 and earlier this year, Chance would speak to a puppet lion that at times acted the part of supportive friend and at others a detractor, questioning his talent and even his motives. Haines, now on tour with her solo band, Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton, employs a similar device. In Haines’ case, she uses her own amplified voice (a recording) that speaks to—and is much rougher—to the musician on stage.
Haines, who in September released her first Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton album in a decade, brought her short tour to the Great American Music Hall on Monday evening.
With the use of “the voice,” Haines turns her concert into a sort of one-woman theatre production. The goal is to come to terms with the voice, and to learn to get past some hurtful memories (more or less; there are probably other interpretations of what was going on on stage). The stage itself was decorated like a bedroom, with a large classic alarm clock sitting on a dresser. This is what the audience saw as it filed in to take their seats.
As the lights dimmed, birdsongs played, and Haines wandered onto the stage and put a robe over her attire, sat on a bed, put on a sleep mask, and lied down. Seconds later the alarm clock went off. Haines got up, stretched. She was brushing her teeth when the voice, which had already cheerily wished her a “good morning,” began to turn ugly, proclaiming that Haines was living off past success, without anything to look forward to; that she treated each chord progression like a magic spell that she sought to find. “You deserve every bad thing that’s happened to you. You are going to hurt like hell forever.”
Haines’ material is extremely personal to her. Her first album, 2006’s Knives Don’t Have Your Back was written shortly after the death of her father. It was followed the next year by by EP What Is Free to a Good Home? She hasn’t touched most of the material since. Unlike the music of Metric, her solo songs are often somber, sometimes bordering on angry but still controlled. September’s Choir of the Mind, perhaps itself a reference to “the voice” in her head, is expansive and varied, and conveys shades of emotion like hurt and pain. It was a return to the place from which she had departed in 2007, with the success of Metric.
The theatre production part of the concert lasted for nearly half the show. Haines began the show singing the somber “Planets” on the bed. She then moved to a stand-up piano at stage-right for several more solo performances, including “Wounded,” “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff” and “Nihilist Abyss.” Each one was delivered with Haines lushly whisper-singing the lines, sometimes seemingly talking to the voice, or her past. It was never the audience. She didn’t break the fourth wall during this time.
Eventually the voice woke Haines from a reverie. “You have a tour! You’re on it now!” Haines paced while her band funneled onto the stage. She was accompanied by drummer Justin Peroff and bassist Sam Goldberg, her bandmates from Broken Social Scene, as well as her constant partner in Metric and also BSS, guitarist Jimmy Shaw. The band added a hard edge to Haines’ vocals and piano playing. The show began moving quicker, propelled by Shaw and the tight rhythm section. Perhaps significantly, this initial “concert” section included a four-song block from Knives Don’t Have Your Back: The meandering “Our Hell,” pulsating, uneasy “Detective Daughter,” prog-like “Mostly Waving,” and “The Maid Needs a Maid,” which was performed without accompaniment.
Somewhere around this point Haines acknowledged the crowd for the first time and thanked her Metric fans for coming to her solo show. She talked about her experiences in San Francisco and the way she had projected an image of redeeming counterculture onto the people who live here, when instead it obviously has its own problems (she talked about drug abuse and the division of the rich and poor). There were some mentions of the current administration and an attempt to end the year “softly,” before the band picked up the performance once again, this time as a traditional concert. A mid-set highlight came in the form of “Statuette,” with Peroff and Goldberg shining with a Latin rhythm.
A couple songs later, she performed “Sprig,” a poem originally written by her late father that she set to music on What Is Free to a Good Home?. Following five songs, the main set concluded with the rocking “Fatal Gift.” While the album version of the song is already a highlight, the band added extra oomph and several movements to the live version. In fact, it could have passed for a Metric song.
As for the theatre performance, well, Haines left it open-ended. Perhaps the audience is supposed to make up its own mind. I choose to remain optimistic. “Under the cover of night, we also find each other,” Haines sang, solo, on the first of two encore tracks, “Strangle All Romance.” She left a glimmer of hope, at least.
Crowd Surf Off a Cliff
The Maid Needs a Maid
Minefield of Memory
Legend of the Wild Horse
Reading in Bed
Strangle All Romance
Choir of the Mind