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'Our Hell': Making Misery Beautiful

As leader of the Canadian dance-pop band Metric, Emily Haines approaches the personal and political with equally uncompromising rawness. On her first solo album, Knives Don't Have Your Back, Haines finds a way to ratchet up Metric's lyrical intimacy, while injecting eerily infectious melodies that render its songs as catchy as they are harrowingly doomstruck. Haines' likeminded peers in Rilo Kiley and Stars — Jenny Lewis and Amy Millan, respectively — both released stripped-down solo records this year, but neither even approaches the wrenching emotional depths here.

The album-opening "Our Hell" sets the tone quickly: Nothing says "grim resignation" quite like the words, "Our hell is a good life," as Haines issues a soft and subtle, vaguely obtuse argument for complacency in misery. But as bleak as "Our Hell" is, it's virtually impossible to deny the song's glorious arrangement, in which Haines and her supporting cast lay out a rich assortment of warm, minor-key melodies.

"What I thought it was, it isn't now," Haines sings, half-heartedly explaining her disillusionment before upping the ante: "There's a pattern in the system / There's a bullet in the gun / That's why I tried to save you / but it can't be done." It's a testament to Haines' considerable gifts that all this pathos goes down so smoothly and sweetly: If her sadness feels this warm, it's hard to imagine what would happen if she cheered up.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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