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"Help I'm Alive" wasn't supposed to be the first single from Metric's 2009 album, Fantasies. Instead, the band had lined up "Gimme Sympathy" to drop first. But "Help I'm Alive" had other plans.
As guitarist Jimmy Shaw explained to an interviewer, "I imagine our songs as people. 'Help I'm Alive' punched 'Gimme Sympathy' in the face and jumped in front of it. We had this image of me coming into the studio one day and the back door was wide open and there were only nine singles there, and 'Help I'm Alive' had run out and was streaking down the neighborhood." (Source)
This kind of creative and hilarious imagery isn't uncommon in the world of Metric. For instance, James has also likened Fantasies to a newly-hatched, soaring pterodactyl—more on that later—and one of the album's tracks, "Stadium Love," is literally about an arena full of animals and humans beating the crap out of each other ("Spider versus bat/ Tiger versus rat/ Owl versus dove"). Fantasies is all about powerful visions, both literal and metaphorical.
One of those visions occurred on stage, long before the album existed as anything other than a...vision in the head of Metric lead singer Emily Haines.
March 30th, 1998: Haines is in the middle of a show in Toronto, about to perform some melancholy piano ballads from one of her solo records. Suddenly she stops, looks at the audience, and says "I don't want to play these songs anymore."
When asked to explain why, Haines simply says she had a sort of epiphany: "I was sick of being sad and was already well into writing Fantasies with Metric. When I play music I inhabit the emotion of the song and I do not fake it." (Source)
This epiphany grew out of an earlier voyage of discovery for Emily Haines. In 2007, the singer traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in order to cleanse her mind. At this junction in the Metric saga, the band had been together for about a decade. After touring almost nonstop since the release of their 2003 breakout album, Old World Underground, all of the members decided they needed to take a break.
"We didn't have a moment where we stopped," says Haines. "When I look back at the touring, it really was like 300 days a year for those three years [between 2003 and 2006]. After that, I thought if we went straight into recording the next album right away we would end up just writing about being in a band on the road because that's all we had experienced. We had to reconnect with our humanity first." (Source)
Kind of like how U2 felt when they went to Berlin to find inspiration for Achtung, Baby!, the members of Metric all ventured into new territory in order to get those creative juices flowing again so they could create what would later become Fantasies. Haines' trip to Argentina was especially productive; she managed to turn one of the most discouraging and frustrating bouts of writer's block she'd ever encountered into a voracious rush of creative songwriting.
And the most famous and powerful track to emerge from the experience was "Help I'm Alive." In a video documentary of her experience in South America, Haines told the story:
I came to Buenos Aires because it was the one place I felt like I could discover for myself and I didn't know a single person. The songs that I wrote here were the simplest and clearest writing I'd done in my life, it was part of the goal. I just felt like I didn't want to write that script again for myself, about how complex things could be; I took it as complex as I could. My life sucked and I was very unhappy with that place, so I felt really like the music I was gonna write for this next record, which would dictate the whole next chapter of my life, needed to be based in simplicity and be really genuine. One of the first songs I wrote was 'Help I'm Alive.' It pretty much sums up the state I've been in since I came here, since I was honest with myself and accepted that I'm really scared and I don't know where my life is going and I don't know what I'm doing. (Source)
"Help I'm Alive" is the kind of song that can shake you to the core. Why? Because its lyrics speak to one of the most universal fears and hopes of mankind.
Ever hear this quote? "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."
It became world famous many years ago when Nelson Mandela used it in a speech, but it was originally written by a woman named Marianne Williamson in her book Return to Love. It has since been (over) used by Hollywood in many contexts (most recently in Akeelah and the Bee), but despite risking turning into a cliché, it does remind us that there is a huge difference between existing and truly living.
Being born into this world is something entirely out of our control, but as the only animals with a consciousness, we humans feel a need to make our lives count; most of us aspire to do something more than just use up oxygen for a few years before turning back to dust.
We want to think, create, love, change things, and leave a lasting impact on the world. At the end of our lives, we want to look back and think, "Hey, I made a difference in this world. My life meant something truly great."
But to have energy, we must also use energy, and many of us fall into a trap. We get scared that we're not good enough, that our ideas aren't brilliant enough, and simply stop trying. We fall into a cycle of laziness motivated by fear and end up procrastinating, claiming writer's block, spending way too much time on Facebook, all while we might have been actually working to achieve a goal and accomplishing something pretty cool.
Even though we may not be all that familiar with physics, we inevitably get tripped up by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. (Even the literary types among us; it's one of the biggest themes in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.) The Second Law states simply that input will never equal output in any given system. In other words, the amount of energy we put toward something will never be used with complete efficiency; some of it will inevitably be lost, escaping forever into the universe as heat.
Back to Emily Haines in Argentina: Like someone having a panic attack, acutely aware of her rapid pulse and pounding heart, she was terrified by the feeling of the blood rushing through her veins and the responsibility that it signified: As a living, breathing human being, she had to create something, do something, or she would feel utterly lost. Haines later recalled:
When I came [to Buenos Aires] I had actually given up on writing, which I actually didn't tell anybody I work with. I felt like there was a gridlock, creating a paralysis in me, that nothing was ever gonna be cool enough, nothing was ever gonna be referential enough; I'm either gonna sound like somebody else or not somebody else, and just too much context. It was really cool to come here and have nobody here care about any of those bands that everyone was freaking out about in London or New York or Toronto. I do feel that that kind of thing helps you if you're in a bad place, at least for me, [shows you] that things can be accomplished. The fact that huge beautiful buildings were constructed just for the purpose of housing art, and letting someone sing or letting someone dance, I was affected by all the architecture. It is true what they say that this is the 'Paris of Latin America,' but it was ultimately the people, the individuals, that I met that meant more to me than any building. I do want what I found, which is the connection between film and music, visuals, and music, the audience and the band. That's a good life, I can do that. (Source)
Sometimes the trick to feeling better is just to write down everything that makes you feel like crap. Once Emily Haines got all her insecurities and hang-ups down onto paper and sheet music, she became unstoppable.
Meanwhile, the three other guys in the band had been working on their own creativity, and Metric reunited revitalized, confident, and ready to make some killer music. The songs on Fantasies were recorded all over the place, from a cabin in the woods to a big industrial space in Toronto, making for a very eclectic and powerful mix of music.
When asked to describe the finished record in five words, Haines offered up "Big, Dreamy, Psychedelic, Flight, Forward" (source). According to the band, it all ties together under that unlikely "soaring pterodactyl" theme. When asked to describe what he meant by that, Shaw explained:
I think what we meant is like, very difficult, and maybe I'm stretching to quantify it because it's totally esoteric and has no basis in reality. The fact is that we're all crazy enough to know what I was talking about in the studio. The idea that it's a pterodactyl means it's timeless; it's prehistoric, but it's in future. It's just not now, not like a dirty pigeon. It comes from a different era. And the idea of it breaking out of its egg and looking over the edge of the cliff is symbolic of where we're at in our career, and we felt like we are sitting on the edge of this precipice, this canyon, and we know how to fly but we are scared to take that first jump. It's the idea of shedding all fear, leaving your safety place and soaring down into this canyon, the future, unknown possibilities. (Source)