Haim’s ‘Days Are Gone’ Is a Canny, Calculated Burst of ’80s Art-Pop Perfection
Release Date: September 30, 2013
Haim are a band of three sisters from Los Angeles who make cool, wholesome pop-rock that sounds like something you might’ve heard on the radio in the mid or late 1980s — or, crucially, what you imagine you might’ve heard: breathy vocals, puckish synths, stiff but danceable rhythms, and reverb that smolders in the mix like dry ice. Despite only having released four songs, they’ve been profiled in publications as inclusive as Teen Vogue and as aggressively hip as The Fader between tours with Mumford & Sons, Florence and the Machine, Vampire Weekend, and other bands that artists several albums into their careers would be thrilled to open for once.
Their debut, Days Are Gone, is one of the most ruthlessly proficient pieces of music to come out this year. Its songs are catchy, compact, and executed with the sweatless professionalism of musicians who have been playing together sin ce they were children, as is the case here. Like Solange Knowles or Sky Ferreira — both hip artists with pasts in prefab pop that they’d prefer to not acknowledge — Haim are neither an evil corporate construct nor an accidental success, but a group of hardworking young women who have spent years of their lives and probably eaten no small amount of dirt in an effort to get famous. It’s an old-fashioned scenario, if you think about it: All too aware of the way bands in the Internet era squander their chance by rushing to grab the spotlight before they have anything to say, Haim have been patient enough — and lucky enough—to wait, presenting themselves as giggly twentysomethings, but constructing their music with the eerie composure of artists twice their age.
Produced by Ariel Rechstaid, whose last big credit was Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, Haim’s full-length debut is retro music in an expensive blender (as goes the current custom with most pop-related music, except possibly rap). Isolate the drums on a song like “The Wire” and you’ll hear live-room glam rock, but the guitars on the chorus buzz with the neon artificiality of early video games. Or wade into “Falling” and “Forever,” whose bear-trap drums snap like some echo of a Jam & Lewis production under ripples of synths lifted from a Teena Marie or Suzy Quatro record — also artists who found the carnal aspect of R&B too messy, but still internalized its rhythmic spunkiness.
There are shades of hair-metal power ballads and elastic vocal rhythms cut from prime-era Timbaland. There are imitations of Joni Mitchell (“Honey & I”) and suggestions of Kate Bush. You may not realize this is all happening, but you know who does? Fucking Haim. That’s just how they’ve been programmed. Over the course of a 45-minute album, these hyper-referential moments pile up with the uncanny effect of suspending time.
But Haim’s ability to suspend time is probably not why Teen Vogue readers will want to listen to them. For all its exquisite detail, Days Are Gone is an album of songs: big, dumb, pleasure-seeking songs with reverentially classic structures and lyrics so broad that even a carburetor could relate. Generally speaking, these lyrics are about heartbreak, which in the face of both social media and online dating continues to be relevant to peoples’ lives. Haim’s attitude on the subject is peculiar. “If it gets rough, it’s time to get rough,” goes the chorus of “Falling.” “It felt right, but I fumbled it when it came down to the wire,” goes the chorus of “The Wire.” Or, “Don’t save me.” Or, “Let me go.” Passivity abounds, and from the deep, blue-black sea of pronouns emerges a characterization of relationships not as painful, soul-dredging experiences, but as mildly embarrassing hassles in which everyone ends up feeling worn-down and bored. They sing as though they float above these concerns, on clouds of soft, vintage denim and the lavender puffs of a fog machine.
In a way, indifference is the album’s secret strength. The music is propulsive and upbeat, but executed with the almost blasé confidence of people who sound like they have nothing to prove. True children of Southern California, Haim often come off like kids who would be equally content shredding or just knocking back with a fresh-fruit smoothie or whatever. This could be a quiet attempt to counterbalance their professionalism, but it’s also the page they ripped from the indie-rock playbook, which suggests that the best way to seduce a listener isn’t by reaching out and razzle-dazzling them (Old World, corny) but by leaning back and letting the listener fall slowly toward you. Freakily poised but never cloying, Days Are Gone is an album that will fade blissfully into your local Urban Outfitters/vintage shop/American gathering, where, like some kind of mollifying drug, people exposed to it will be happier without either knowing or caring why. Let them. Let them be happier. Let us.