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How “Help, I’m Alive” dragged Metric from a premature burial

In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, we asked: “Record Store Day is this weekend. What’s your favorite song getting re-issued this weekend or that you’ve discovered through a previous RSD?” 

We were certain we’d never see Emily Haines alive again.

The singer-songwriter and Metric frontwoman had just played one of the most gorgeous—and at times, heartbreaking—concerts I’d ever seen, a homecoming performance in support of her 2006 solo effort Knives Don’t Have Your Back. My girlfriend and I had traveled to Canada from Mid-Michigan to see Haines play the album’s aching, spare songs at a refurbished Toronto movie house, and while the gaunt figure standing in for the typically vibrant Haines accurately represented the black-and-white, minor-key brooding of Knives Don’t Have Your Back, it was difficult not to feel some despair on her behalf. Her stage presence was strung-out and her between-song banter incomprehensible, and while we visiting Michiganders headed into the late-December chill in search of streetside hot dogs, our conversation never turned from the lingering impression that we’d just watched a performer dig her own grave.

When Metric teased its 2009 album, Fantasies, with a trailer depicting Haines as an expat trying to rediscover her voice in Buenos Aires, it shed a tremendous amount of light on that faraway night in Toronto. Describing the motivation behind her South American decampment, she speaks in terms that line up with the song that the video uses as a soundtrack: An acoustic version of Fantasies’ first single, “Help, I’m Alive.” In souped-up, slicked-down studio form, “Help, I’m Alive” later staked Metric’s first legitimate claim on the American charts (and made for a gorgeous, picture-disc 7-inch released on the second Record Store Day); I’ve always preferred its skeletal precursor, however. It’s a callback to the creaky, piano-driven sound of Knives Don’t Have Your Back (an undervalued record—look it up on the next rainy day), but I think it also gets closer to the revelation and rebirth that produced the song. Every time Haines asks “Can you hear my heart beating like a hammer?”, I think back to a performance where she laid herself so bare, I could see her heart beating. An event where it was unclear whether the most appropriate response was a standing ovation, or the mass extension of the helping hands Haines calls for in “Help, I’m Alive.”