Photo Credit: Nicole Mago
The 2013 debut album Days Are Gone from Haim – sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim – was musically nothing short of a small miracle, a near-perfect symmetry of production, composition, and performance which utilized influences ranging from the classic rock of the Eagles and Pink Floyd to the ’80s pop/R&B of Michael Jackson and Prince, all propelled by each of the siblings’ ability on multiple instruments. All three Haim girls also sing beautifully (both on their own and in harmony) without ever feeling the need to resort to diva-like vocal gymnastics. Sadly, though, it turns out Haim wasn’t immune to the sophomore slump. Their 2017 follow-up, Something to Tell You, was nowhere near as memorable or distinct, and we could only hope that it wasn’t telling of what was to come.
Fortunately, Haim’s current four-song release, anchored by the single “The Steps”, is every bit a step in the right direction without taking a step back. While not officially an EP (it’s the single, another song, and two “bonus tracks”) it absolutely comprises a collective work and not just recaptures the inspiration and quality of the first album, but also shows Haim’s evolving range, both musically and lyrically.
“The Steps” is the same nod to Seventies classic rock – particularly the Eagles, and in turn, their later hit “Heartache Tonight” – which already served Haim well on the “The Wire”, their most successful single thus far. Although “The Steps” is not simply “The Wire Redux,” thematically being closer to the Eagles’ earlier country-side, but in this case, projecting that genre’s concise brand of traditional-but-independent feminism (“Every day I wake up and make money for myself // And though we share a bed // You know that I don’t need your help”). Synth-heavy “Now, I’m in It” definitely sounds like a track from Days Are Gone, at least until a classical-sounding piano (and then a bit of blues guitar) makes a musical cameo two-thirds of the way in. But also like pretty much the entirety of Days Are Gone, it’s all seamlessly balanced.
Despite Los Angeles being mentioned in the first line (as well as being the setting of the video, which is Haim’s hometown), “Summer Girl” is an unmistakable tribute to New York City’s distinct brand of artsy just-before-punk rock epitomized by Lou Reed’s 1972 album Transformer. In fact, the similarity of the song to Lou Reed’s classic “Walk on the Wild Side” (including the minimalist scat singing) no one would be able to miss – not even Haim, who consequently give the late Reed a deserved songwriting co-credit. Still, “Summer Girl” walks past “Wild Side”’s detailed depiction of the lives of sexual outcasts, and is instead lyrically as basic as the title would suggest.
On just these four tracks, Haim shows more diversity than many other current musicians’ entire commercial output (although it’s quite possible that these particular songs were selected for just that reason). The cleanup batter here is “Hallelujah”, a strikingly profound and alluring mid-tempo tradition acoustic guitar song, which might also feature the group’s most impressive vocal performance to date. More instruments come about halfway in before everything gives way to the obligatory orchestration section. Sure, it’s technically formulaic, but the sheer beauty of the final product outweighs any fault we could possibly attempt to find in it.
Probably the best-known use of the word (and its implications) in popular music in the past generation has been in Jeff Buckley’s 1994 cover of Leonard Cohen’s composition also titled simply “Hallelujah.” Like that song – which became an anthem of hope after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 – Haim’s identically titled and themed song (“Old fears, helped to ease them in my mind // New tears say that they will dry in time.”) also arrives at a difficult, troubling and confusing time in the first half of 2020. The full-length album that originally intended to house these four songs, Women in Music Part III, has even been delayed because of the current health crisis. However, if these tracks are any indication, it will be worth the wait.