Here’s a big surprise: Haim let themselves get messy this time. Here’s an even bigger surprise: Messiness suits them.
Ever since sisters Danielle, Este, and Alana Haim emerged out of the San Fernando Valley early last decade, they’ve been serving up sparkling, professional records that flaunted their loyalty to traditionally unhip influences. Their music hybridized immaculately produced grocery-aisle music from across the decades: guitar-powered California soft-rockers like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, VH1-beloved adult contemporary hitmakers like Wilson Phillips and Paula Cole, pop-R&B superstars like Destiny’s Child and TLC. Even when they properly rocked out (as on the “21st Century Schizoid Man”-gone-EDM squelcher “My Song 5″) or retreated into the quiet (as on the sparse and powerful “Right Now”), they did so in pristine hi-fi, with the utmost poise. The only thing blurry about tracks like “Forever” and “Something To Tell You” was the line they walked between choreographed pop and easy listening classic rock — an ideal fit for a moment when trend-conscious rock bands were attempting to morph into pop stars.
Haim made two good albums in this mold. The first, 2013’s Days Are Gone, was widely acclaimed for its sharp songwriting and unique aesthetic. Days Are Gone’s deep well of singles and Haim’s relentless touring behind it — including umpteen festival gigs and an opening spot on Taylor Swift’s stadium tour — made them stars. But by the time they released Something To Tell You four years later, the long wait for new music, all while Haim remained extremely present in the public eye, had allowed both expectations and backlash to build. In terms of quality and substance, the albums were about the same, but in the absence of the buzz that once buoyed them, about the same did not inspire the same rapturous response. In fact, the consistency led some listeners to dismiss Haim as one of those groups doomed to endlessly repeat their fully formed debut with diminishing returns.
No one can accuse them of making the same album over again now. Women In Music Pt. III, out this Friday, is clearly the music of the same three women. Yet it shows off a different side of Haim: looser, more casual, less perfectionist. It has big Wowee Zowee energy, opening on a downbeat note and following a discursive, unpredictable trajectory from there. Its lengthy tracklist and recurring focus on the nuances of domestic life link it to Father Of The Bride, the Vampire Weekend album Danielle and her romantic partner Ariel Rechtshaid factored into heavily last year. It’s part of a recent lineage of impressionist, deconstructed pop albums in thrall to Frank Ocean’s Blonde. And yet none of those comparisons come close to encapsulating the ethos of WIMPIII. This is an album that could have only been made by Haim, one that gets even more up close and personal than the portrait on the Something To Tell You cover. Both lyrically and sonically, it’s rawer than they’ve ever allowed themselves to be on record.
Given the title and the photo of Haim surrounded by sausages that serves as this album’s art, it’ll come as no surprise that some of that self-disclosure addresses Haim’s experiences as women in the male-dominated music industry. “Man From The Magazine” in particular rebukes demeaning treatment from journalists (“Do you make the same faces in bed?”) and guitar store clerks (“Hey girl why don’t you play a few bars?”), culminating in one of WIMPIII’s most memorable lines: “You don’t know how it feels, you expect me to deal with it/ Till I’m perfectly numb/ But you don’t know how it feels to be the cunt.” On the bashed-out guitar banger “The Steps,” an exasperated Danielle informs her lover, “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.”
But misogyny is just one of many causes fueling Haim’s exhaustion. Some of WIMPIII’s songs deal frankly with depression, grieving, and longing for home. A great many are about the complexities and frustrations of long-term romance, about fighting with and for each other for reasons you can’t fully express. “I can’t understand why you don’t understand me, baby!” Danielle cries out on “The Steps.” “It’s fucked up but it’s true/ That I love you like I do,” she concludes on the powerful, barebones “FUBT.” On the finger-plucked ballad “Leaning On You,” the sisters harmonize, “It takes all that I got not to fuck this up.” The magnificent “Gasoline” combines bluesy guitar and stuttering boom-bap drums with thank-you-for-tolerating-me confessions like “I get sad and I can’t look past what I’m sad about.”
Haim match this increased vulnerability with production — from Danielle, Rechtshaid, and their longtime collaborator Rostam Batmanglij — that scrapes off bits of the band’s gleaming veneer, creating the illusion of disarray within the the usual crisp textures and savvy arrangements. A few songs are mixed by volume merchant Dave Fridmann, and several others mimic his charred, visceral signature sound. Whirring waves of noise and a ballistic Cass McCombs guitar lead lend a jarring edge to the chooglin’ “Up From A Dream.” Deep cut “All That Ever Mattered” overlays its synthetic pop chorus with blood-curdling screams and hair-metal shredding from Amir Yaghmai of the Voidz. A dull hum gives “Man From The Magazine” the feel of a Joni Mitchell demo, while Rostam’s sidechained tape hiss mimics the fog of depression on “I Know Alone.” The sum total is lo-fi by Haim standards but far from a garbled early ’90s Guided By Voices cassette. The vibe is much closer to an old mixtape from the same timeframe filled up with old pop and rock songs recorded off the radio.
WIMPIII’s use of vocal fuzz and other strategically unkempt sounds does connect it to GBV disciples the Strokes, another group of retro-minded pop-rockers derided by cynics for their well-connected parents. (Never forget that Danielle toured as a guitarist for Julian Casablancas before Haim blew up.) Speaking of generational icons with well-connected parents, the album has much in common with Clairo’s Rostam-produced Immunity, a melancholy dispatch that blurred the edges between pop and indie rock in a way that, in a circle-completing gesture, could not have existed without Haim. This is a record with room for Vegyn to playfully bloviate like a British André 3000 on a moody R&B track called “3AM,” for stabs of “You Can Call Me Al”-worthy synth brass on “Don’t Wanna,” for Jim-E Stack drum programming that lifts “FUBT” from the shadowy calm into the Top Gun soundtrack’s wild blue yonder. The eclecticism, the sprawl, the pervasive bleariness, the frequent ’80s callbacks, the proud reclamation of the formerly unhip — all of it marks Haim as kindred spirits with the 1975, albeit ones who can bare their souls without being as extra about it as Matty Healy.
The path to this fresh iteration of Haim began last summer with the sisters taking a laidback approaching in the studio, writing and releasing singles as they went. Danielle communicated warmth toward Rechtshaid during his cancer battle on the sax-inflected Lou Reed homage “Summer Girl.” She revealed the extent of her struggle with depression on the Savage Garden-inspired “Now I’m In It.” On the reverent and sentimental “Hallelujah,” Este dug into her daily struggle with diabetes while Alana mourned a friend who died far too young. It was a corner-turning sequence for the group, one that broke them out of their established template and spurred on their most rewarding creative output yet. Those songs are tacked on to the end of the album as bonus tracks, a sort of prologue-as-epilogue for the WIMPIII era.
The topics of love, loss, and reconciliation are not new for Haim. “The Wire” and “I Want You Back,” the best songs from each of their first two albums, are apologies for letting go of a relationship the singer should have clung to. Theoretically, this is heavy emotional content, but at the time Haim came off like narrators, industry pros spinning made-up stories. The main sensation these tracks conveyed was the euphoric rush that accompanies an impeccable pop song. The world needs that sort of thrill, but Women In Music Pt. III digs down into something deeper and realer. Even when they happen upon some levity (“New York is cold/ I tried the winter there once/ Nope!”) these songs are grounded in a fundamental weariness (“Clearly the greatest city in the world/ But it was not my home/ I felt more alone”). They exist under the cloud of anxiety and gloom that permeated daily life long before this year’s series of crises, one that sometimes dissipates in a loved one’s embrace.
On Women In Music Pt. III, as in life, that tension never fully resolves. “Some things never change,” the Haim sisters sing. “They never fade/ It’s never over.” It’s more of an ebb and flow, a lifelong process of learning to find stability in the storm, largely by learning to offer and accept support: “I’ve been down/ Can you help me out?” By lowering their guard enough to honestly depict that process, Haim came away with their defining work thus far, a collection of songs that redefines their legacy and opens up exciting new possibilities for their future. Through stylish filters but without a self-protective sheen, it reflects back both the messiness of this life and the tenderness that can carry us through it.
Women In Music Pt. III is out 6/26 on Columbia.