Premature Evaluation: HAIM Something To Tell You
Days Are Gone had legs. Four years is a long time, and yet HAIM’s debut album never really left rotation, at least at my house. That album, so full of incandescent and immaculately assembled studio-pop, turned out to be perfect backing music for house-cleanings and long car trips and any other situation where you need backing music that isn’t going to annoy anyone. Its hooks, so carefully considered, never lost their bite, and its production, so clean and precise, never lost its glow. And anyway, it’s not like there have been a whole lot of albums that sound anything like Days Are Gone since Days Are Gone came out. HAIM’s music doesn’t even belong to a genre; it’s summery ’70s Laurel Canyon folk-pop, but it’s also ’90s R&B and ’60s girl-group music and ’00s trying-on-clothes-in-H&M dance-pop. It’s about four different generations of down-the-middle radio music, all melted together into one thing that, amazingly enough, still had personality working for it. I haven’t been living with Something To Tell You, HAIM’s long-awaited follow-up, for more than a few days, but it already feels like it’s got legs, too.
A big part of the fun in listening to HAIM’s music is in hearing all the tiny little interlocking parts, in wondering how the people involved put them all together. My five-year-old has lately gotten really into superhero Lego sets, these masses of indistinguishable plastic blocks that will only turn into something cool if they’re assembled exactly right. You lose one little tiny tile, and Black Panther’s plane won’t shoot its little missiles like it’s supposed to. HAIM’s songs are big and fun and hooky, but they’re full of little blocks like that. And if you listen close, you can hear them all at work. That little Public Enemy-style tire-squeal right when the beat kicks in on “Want You Back,” for instance, or the tiny buried-in-the-mix bongo-ripple that comes in toward the end of “You Never Knew.” Those little elements can float right by you; you might not notice them until the 50th listen. But HAIM’s songs are made up almost entirely of little elements like that, and, when you put them all together, they turn into something beautiful.
HAIM’s version of pop music is a whole lot different from what, say, Rihanna or Selena Gomez or their onetime collaborator Calvin Harris are giving us. It’s a boutique version of pop music, an artisanal take on it. None of the songs on Something To Tell You are quite as immediate as a Days Are Gone highlight like “The Wire.” And even after spending a whole summer opening for their buddy Taylor Swift in stadiums — not arenas, stadiums — HAIM haven’t done a whole lot to streamline their sound or update it to make it more in line with the stuff that’s running the show these days. If HAIM have any ambitions to headline stadiums themselves one day, they’re going to do it entirely on their own terms. Something To Tell You won’t get them there. The songs aren’t built to reach out and grab you immediately the way most big pop music is now. But the album is a completely overwhelming piece of work in its own way. It twinkles and gleams, and it somehow sounds like Don Henley and SWV at the same time. It’s a triumph of studio-craft for studio-craft’s own sake.
HAIM had help, of course. But it’s striking that they worked with basically the exact same group of people who helped them make their first album. Ariel Rechtshaid is basically the fourth member of HAIM now. He produces on Something To Tell You, and he also plays and gets a writing credit on virtually all of its songs. Rostam Batmanglij, another peer, also helps out on a few songs. Dev Hynes and Twin Shadow’s George Lewis, Jr. both show up in the credits, as well. When the heart-swelling strings come in on “Found It In Silence,” it’s Owen Pallett playing them. Like HAIM, these are all people who get lumped in with indie rock without sounding even remotely indie rock. Like HAIM, these are all people doing great, thoughtful, gorgeous things with the chart-pop sounds of generations past. And like HAIM, all of them are born collaborators, total professionals who know how to put their skills in service of someone else’s vision. If you didn’t know which songs had their fingerprints on them, you wouldn’t be able to pick them out. This is HAIM’s show.
Lyrically, Something To Tell You is almost entirely an album about relationships — about falling in love and drifting apart and realizing that you want to be with someone again and realizing that you do not want to be with someone again. On paper, the album’s words are a bit trite and simplistic: “You don’t wanna give and you don’t want to know how / If you were gonna change things, you would’ve by now.” But when in Danielle Haim’s voice — conversational, rhythmically precise, completely confident in whatever it’s saying — those simple lyrics gain a directness and a profundity. As a singer, she’s only gotten better, staying cool and unflappable while her sisters layer on the complex backing harmonies, dancing all around her. In interviews and onstage, Danielle can fade into the background while her sisters’ goofiness takes over everything. But on record, Danielle is the absolute and unquestioned leader, the calm at the center of everything.
I can’t say enough about the way this thing sounds. The drums are massive, sharp little bursts of thunder, and “Right Now” even has one of those titanic breaks like “In The Air Tonight.” The guitars always have the exact right amount of reverb. There are plenty of times when I can’t tell what instrument I’m hearing, but the bones of the songs always sound like the product of people who know each other very well working in a room together, even if they then spend months playing around with the different bits of their songs in ProTools. And even after all that time that the sisters and their collaborators spent working on the album, after all the drafts they must’ve gone through, the album’s most powerful moment is probably its rawest and its most stripped-back.
Album closer “Night So Long” isn’t exactly lo-fi; it still has incandescent guitars and backing vocals so rapturously recorded that they remind me of Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On.” But it’s also a moment of stark vulnerability, one where Danielle’s voice gets some room to breathe so that she can lament another night spent alone. For half the song, all you hear is her voice and one guitar. And when her sisters burst in, it’s moving, these other voices rallying and supporting the one we’ve been hearing. I hope HAIM keep making lush, elaborate, fun festival-pop forever, but if they ever decide to get dark and heavy with it, then “Night So Long” is proof that they know what they’re doing. And if not, that’s fine, too; I now have something to clean my house to for the next four years.
Something To Tell You is out 7/7 on Columbia.