In the video for “Want You Back,” the first single from the new second album by Haim, the smart set’s favorite white pop band, the three San Fernando Valley sisters saunter side by side up the Ventura Boulevard strip. Occasionally one Haim might lip-synch a part of a vocal line. A few seconds later another Haim might add a few throwaway physical gestures: a head swivel, a shoulder shrug, a dash of air drumming. This “mom dance" wards off any expectation of polished choreography even as it draws attention to the sisters as adept musicians—each move is cued to a specific sound, a percussion fill or a synth effect, almost like they’re triggering it, certainly like they know it inside-out. (“Right Now,” the other advance video for the Something to Tell You album, shot by There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson in one day in a recording studio, is a similar testament to their virtuosity.)
This emphasis on musicianship rebukes the stubborn stereotype of the “girl band” as an artificially assembled group of sexy singers. Haim (pronounced “Hi-um”) doesn’t have to dress up and do choreographed dance routines. The sisters are not ornaments—they’re the music makers. (Of course, it’s the music business, so they’re still conventionally attractive. Though that also reinforces that they’re making a choice.) So, in the video, they move only when they feel the music, sing only when it seems expressive. Got it.
But then, in the final minute of “Want You Back,” as the track reaches a peak, their moves start coming closer together, until suddenly they are doing a choreographed dance routine. At which point, my first time watching, I burst unexpectedly into tears.
Unless my secret chauvinist heart was crying hallelujah that Haim was finally knuckling under (I don’t think so …), part of my reaction may have been because the scene undercut the false and sexist dichotomy I’ve just described, one they’ve sometimes encouraged, in which women in pop who play guitars and keyboards are granted more legitimacy than women who dance and sing. Elvis Presley didn’t have to defend himself that way.
More, though, I think I was crying because Haim’s chill shell had cracked and warmth and joy hatched out of it, rising from individuation into community. So many of their songs do this, first suspending and then collapsing the tension between singer-songwriter style and mass-directed pop. Whatever personal dilemma is set up solo by lead singer, guitarist, and drummer Danielle in the early verses—almost always about the anxiety of disconnection—sisters Este (bass, vocals) and Alana (guitar, keyboards, percussion, vocals) arrive to alleviate and dispel the pain in layers of rhythm and harmony. By song’s end, they become a mighty, multitracked wave of solidarity, a veritable sororal army. It’s an emotional rescue for which just about anyone yearns.
Pop is full of this kind of sentimental architecture, with its structures of tension and release, of separation and togetherness, that models familiar life spaces and lets listeners project ourselves inside. But those effects become particularly intense when we know that the people making the music aren’t just collaborators or friends but entangled as intimately as most of us have ever experienced, as a couple, or as a family. Every song, every look, every dance reverberates within that larger relationship. So in “Want You Back,” what’s most moving about the dance is that it’s the moment the three musicians come out recognizably as sisters—it looks homemade, something any set of siblings might work up in the living room, as in a way it is, since Este herself did the choreography. (One longs to see the rehearsal outtakes.)
This is typical of the Haims’ screwy charm, which is obvious in their hyper, jokey interviews and stage performances, and in the group’s backstory of having learned to perform doing covers with their parents in a family group called Rockinhaim. The tricky thing about them is that this context sometimes overshadows the music, making it seem like more is happening than meets the ear.
Haim does have the deep-blend magic of sibling harmonies, which along with its quintessential Californianness is reminiscent of the Beach Boys’ Wilson brothers (not to mention, closer in sound, Brian Wilson’s daughters Carnie and Wendy in 1990s band Wilson Phillips). That the Beach Boys were so much more, of course, was due to Brian’s vast imagination and dark vulnerability. So far there are few signs of anything so primal behind all of Haim’s appealing energy and proficiency. It’s an unfair comparison that arises because I’m not sure whether the blankness I feel at the core of Haim’s enjoyability is the limit of their talent, or the inherent limit of talent for talent’s sake, or a more complex withholding. But it makes me doubt whether the band will ever graduate from good to great. On one of my listens to Something to Tell You, the adage “God loves a trier” came to mind.
Something to Tell You is musically and lyrically more thoughtful and consistent than Haim’s 2013 debut, Days Are Gone, with a better balance between the group’s hands-on musicianship and the modern studio enhancements aided by returning producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Danielle’s real-life partner), along with guests such as Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, ex–Vampire Weekend paladin Rostam Batmanglij, and Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr. Thematically it dwells on the challenges of finding men who can cope with loving successful women and then maintaining those relationships under pressure of distance (i.e., touring)—standard second-album fodder but improved by leaving out showbiz trappings in favor of gender and communication issues, with an implicit feminist undercurrent. In that sense it carries on from Days Are Gone, though some of those songs seemed more lived-in, a hard-to-avoid tradeoff of going global. The new ones are better crafted but further abstracted. As the critic Eric Weisbard said in a Facebook post, Danielle seems to be accounting each relationship as either profit or loss, an all–too–Los Angeles state of mind.
Who cares, though, as long as the music and performances click into spiraling helixes as they do on “Want You Back”? The second track, “Nothing’s Wrong,” accelerates through the curves of Shania Twain–style country-pop, only to detour into a fetchingly weird tape-loopy bridge (the part that confirms something absolutely is wrong). The Twin Shadow–assisted “Ready for You” should go down as one of 2017’s finest Prince homages. And my favorite, “Found It in Silence,” dares to get cosmic with thrumming strings and crunchy drums, achieving post-melodrama epiphanies worthy of Haim’s permanent patron saint, Stevie Nicks. None of them rival Haim’s peak to date, 2013’s “The Wire,” but that kind of miracle track comes along rarely in a career if it comes at all.
On the other hand, one almost could swap verses between middling songs such as “Something to Tell You,” “Little of Your Love,” and “You Never Knew” without noticing. In Haim’s game of emotional peril parried by musical deliverance, the songs can seem to be indicating feelings instead of feeling them, especially when the music falls short of salvation. In part this is a problem of point of view—although Danielle is the lead voice on all the songs, they’re billed as collectively written, and perhaps in that interest more idiosyncratic personal perspectives get suppressed, so the songs become broad and vague. Not that broad and vague isn’t par for the course in pop, but it’s conspicuous in a band that stakes so much on personality.
Consider Haim’s heroes in Fleetwood Mac. Their influence is everywhere now, even on the new album by One Direction’s Harry Styles (though nothing there is as moving as Styles’ recent live duet in May with Nicks on “Landslide”). But Haim got there first. Fleetwood Mac was an intertwined-couples band, not siblings, but as Lindsey Buckingham has said, the members “are really family,” and on Rumours, every song was them “writing dialogue to each other.” If that happens in Haim, it’s utterly obscured. Then again, consider what transparency cost Fleetwood Mac.
Here lies a paradox of the family band. Every band is like a pretend family, but every real family, like every couple, is a conspiracy, a combine that repels outsiders and guards secrets. The same intimate structures that invite listener identification also resist it. What can the family band do to counter? There are multiple strategies. One is pure, slick showbiz—one can’t help noticing that Haim’s “Want You Back” nearly shares a title with the greatest single by arguably the greatest sibling band ever. Even the Jacksons’ veneer wasn’t thick enough to conceal the fissures in the family forever, but it served for a time. At the opposite extreme is the Wainwright-McGarrigle clan, not exactly a family band but a shifting set of soloists and duos and choruses singing autobiographically and settling musical scores. No one wins, because any song can be answered by another. Those multiple truths make everything relative among the relatives and leaves listener guessing.
Haim seems to want it both ways and get neither for long: The assertive individualism and the privacy-protecting evasion tend to cancel each other out. I’m not saying at all that the sisters are obliged to disclose more, to expose themselves for our entertainment. Their disinclination to do that is admirable in the too-much-information, 21st-century pop world. But artists are also allowed to make things up, as well as write about something other than themselves, and Haim so far hasn’t done either.
Among contemporary sister bands, the Vancouver twins Tegan and Sara have been able to write pop songs that seem personal but neither diaristic nor self-surrendering, in part because their outsider viewpoints as lesbians help them triangulate their emotions with larger matters. Knowles sisters Beyoncé and Solange have released solo albums that dialogue with each other obliquely. I even think of Toronto’s extended-chosen-family collective Broken Social Scene. Its new album (the first in seven years) Hug of Thunder collages individually introspective and group dynamic–oriented lyrics with grown-up thoughts about the state of the world, succeeding in making the members’ own relationships allegorical without overplaying their hands (mostly) and imbuing their big sound with meaning more potently than they have since their first few albums in the similarly distressing early 2000s.
Every pop moment is embedded in history, and history is embedded in every pop moment. Thinking through Something to Tell You, I’m puzzled by how Haim has gotten better but seems worse than in 2013–14. The reason has to be that in the late Obama era, when pop-chart populism still seemed democratizing and progress was on the upswing, Haim’s sisterhood variation on the theme felt liberating. That populism now feels double-edged, so the songs don’t quite stick. At the tail of the “Want You Back” video, the dance routine falls apart, and the trio wanders off laughing as the camera pulls away. The cathartic feeling dwindles back to mere charm, a shrugging amiability. It works as a reclamation of the band’s autonomy from pop imperatives, but it’s also like what happened here didn’t matter. It's just another perfect day in carefree, privileged L.A.
Some of my friends had a similar adverse reaction to Lorde’s Melodrama—that it was a self-dramatizing album about V.I.P. room–level problems that they were not in the mood to hear in 2017. But Lorde is barely 20, is from New Zealand (distant from the epicenters of the culture wars), and seems to me awkwardly self-conscious in her bohemianism, such that all her wrestling with herself has a subtext about how a person should be in art and in society. The Haim sisters are 25 (Alana), 28 (Danielle), and 31 (Este). They’re Americans. They were in the Women’s March. Not that they should have made a protest album, but the lack of any trace of an outside world on Something to Tell You makes their bubble glare. They draw equally on classic rock/folk-rock/country-rock and the sonics of recent R&B (to their credit, they go out of their way to heap appreciation on Rihanna and Beyoncé), but they seem insulated from the ways that their forebears and most of today’s black (and some white) pop artists have adapted to changing times.
For a final sibling-band comparison, I turn to New Jersey sister trio the Roches, who were linked by marriage to the McGarrigle-Wainwright tribe (paterfamilias Loudon Wainwright III was once married to youngest sister Suzzy Roche) but were very much their own phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s. They never troubled the pop charts, but they were three sisters with distinct ranges and styles who nevertheless could create the sort of enchanting vocal blend that the Haim sisters do. Their lineage out of ’60s folk-rock is not unlike Fleetwood Mac and other Haim influences, but they feared neither invention, autobiography, idiosyncracy, topicality, nor (like the Haims) dumb jokes. They weren’t afraid of the studio, either, collaborating with prog/experimental guitarist Robert Fripp to destabilize many of their late-’70s and 1980s recordings. They’ve been on my mind since January, when oldest sister Maggie died at 65, but particularly this week after a friend shared a YouTube video of Phoebe Snow and Linda Ronstadt’s amazing Saturday Night Live performance of Maggie’s “The Married Men.” Here is a song that shamelessly flexes its disobedient autonomy, and gives no hint of its supposed truth or fiction, but tells a story that is anything but generic.
The Roches even created a vaudevillian theme song to stand in for all the work the Haims do in interviews—to at once voice their bond and distinguish among themselves, while at the same time sloughing off the most irritatingly repeated questions (“We don’t give out our ages, and we don’t give out our phone numbers/ Sometimes our voices give out, but not our ages or our phone numbers”). What they had in profusion was three songwriting voices that could not be confused with anyone else’s. There was a point when a band like Haim, a troupe of fantastical synthesizing mimics who could sum up everything that had gone before and channel it into escapist delight, was a dream come true. But now we have daily nightmares. Under those conditions, Something to Tell You is a record that doesn’t seem to have much to tell us at all.