Review: Haim Stick to Their Soft Rock Strengths on the Dense, Romantic Something to Tell You
Given Haim’s reputation for immaculately tasteful artistry, any missteps long curated away, it is sometimes hard to forget they once appeared on a Calvin Harris single. “Pray to God” is easily one of his best; Haim and co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid provide a lushness to the production and complication to the songwriting that Harris previously lacked, and the sisters—front and center in the video, give or take a wolf or a bear—are a grounding, undeniable vocal presence in a genre where vocalists are allowed so little gravitas they’re often uncredited. But Harris gives back—the verses have the same desperate propulsion that makes “Edge of Seventeen” unmatched in Stevie Nicks’ catalogue, and the house chorus, breaking through with geyser force, allows Haim a euphoria they’d previously only tapped into on “Falling.”
“Pray to God” wasn’t a smash, but Haim were still popular enough to later tour with Taylor Swift as she ran her 1989 victory lap. It seemed entirely plausible that a full-on Top 40 crossover, complete with Max Martin co-production perhaps, might be in their future. That future has found pop music creeping, albeit in the background, toward Haim’s meticulous, studio-polished but organic arrangements, but Haim have not moved. Something to Tell You, their new album, replicates the Days are Gone formula near-exactly. Once again, their main producer is Rechtshaid (part of why Haim sounds like such an outlier is the fact that he’s virtually disappeared from pop in the past two years), with assists from Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, both known for subtle, unobtrusive musicianship.
Something to Tell You sounds like the work of a neural network trained on soft-rock radio: hyperspecific melodies and riffs arriving with Markov-chain unpredictability, so dense it’s impossible to keep up with what they’re referencing now. As with that radio, some of those references acknowledge the 2010s: the backing vocal line two-thirds of the way through “Want You Back” that quotes, ever so briefly, the melody to Rihanna’s “Needed Me”; the times Danielle tosses out the same Michael Jackson hics and tics the Weeknd’s replicated all over top 40; how the title track, given a thumpier production, would fit right in on that station. Even so, most of Something to Tell You suggests a world where musical history stopped in 1999, where was still a clear line in pop music drifting momentarily into R&B and ’80s synths but otherwise running from Fleetwood Mac to Sheryl Crow, Wilson Phillips to Jennifer Paige, one that given the near-total lack of forward motion between Days are Gone and this, Haim seems willing to follow forever.
But no one listens to Haim for innovation. They listen for the bespoke soft-rock arrangements, tapping those rare veins unmined by the past decades of ’70s rock fetishism, ’80s synthpop repro and ’90s kitsch nostalgia. They listen for the way each song assembles carefully considered elements with Faberge-egg intricacy (and, given Alana and Este’s ever-remarked-upon glee in live performances, a personality beyond mere session work). They listen for the way Danielle Haim’s vocals can sound like a dozen artists at once, or how they’re dotted through the arrangement with pointillist precision. Haim thrive on this precision and care; minimalism rarely suits them. Rostam Batmanglij’s backing track for “Walking Away” is already overly polite, but the band approaches quiet storm R&B with a tiptoeing reverence, as if they’re afraid to break it. And since Haim’s sound depends on a delicate balance of studio precision, dense arrangements and plaintive lyrics, experimentation is risky. Your first idea might be your best idea, like Days are Gone’s fuzzy, shonky “My Song 5” (so unpolished the title’s the GarageBand default). Or your sound could completely fall apart, as on the band’s recent cover of Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar,” a song whose twinkly minimalism is completely out of Haim’s element.
The band is smart, then, to play to their strengths on Something to Tell You: experiments at small scale. Gauzy closer “Night So Long” suggests early Sarah McLachlan, if she arranged her ballads for electric guitar. The sudden metallic vocoders and assertive Linn drum of “Ready For You,” tinge Haim’s sound with a little drop of purple rain. Haim treats bridges, in particular, with more attention than virtually anyone else in pop. The bridge to “Nothing’s Wrong” is pure breathless romantic tension, with backmasking sounding like gasps, but one line reveals the titular lie: a bit of conspicuously pitch-shifted falsetto that’s downright cartoonish in Haim’s more rustic-toned palette. The reverie peters out, just as the relationship described (“sleeping back to back, you’re turning away”) does.
This is a typical relationship in a Haim song. Most of Something to Tell You—again, like Days are Gone—finds the sisters at a precipice: the moment just before walking away from someone, or the hesitation just afterward, a long plaintive look back at the door, or all the ambivalence before and after. Part of this ambivalence might be a byproduct of their writing process; as Este told Pitchfork, “When I put forth lyrics, they get very emo. And Danielle and Alana have to reel them in.”
If Haim are criticized, this is usually why—as if relationships are somehow unworthy material for pop music, or that women’s music is only worth attention when one-dimensionally sassy or scorned. But Haim’s tracks are more complicated than they get credit for. “The Wire” is an unusually stark picture of fear of commitment disguised as a kiss-off by the Eagles; similarly, the more ebullient tracks on Something to Tell You are the ones where fulfillment seems farthest out of reach; every love song is more like a plea. This is what distinguishes Haim from soft-rock taxidermy (detailed as it may be). They’re a band with a singular focus: to prod at and isolate the emotions behind those radio staples, and make their own craft of it. Heartbreak, as they sing, “by design.”