Women in Music Pt. III (Expanded Edition)

Haim

Columbia, 2021

http://www.haimtheband.com

REVIEW BY: Gus Rocha

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/16/2021

It wasn’t until the second week of July last year that I started warming up to the idea of socializing with others. Until that time, I’d spent the first four months of the pandemic at home, my daily dose of social interaction occurring nightly in my kitchen as my two roommates and I cooked and ate dinner together. After spending most of that week figuring out how and where to get Covid-tested, I made long-overdue plans with my friend Kevin. At that point, we hadn’t seen each other in almost a year, a fact that added an extra layer of significance only heightened by the current circumstances. Kevin and I are both musicians, and music has been an integral part of our relationship for as long as we’ve known each other. We’re both also highly opinionated people, quick to pontificate and extoll the virtues or decry the defects of the current musical landscape. So naturally, after recapping every significant event in our lives over the previous year, the topic of music quickly dominated the conversation. 

Speaking excitedly and with his typically candid demeanor, he eagerly brought up a new release that had come out just a couple of weeks prior and that he wanted me to hear: Haim’s highly-anticipated third album Women in Music Pt. III. I have to confess that, at first, I was a bit taken aback by his suggestion. Like many people my age, I was instantly hooked by the sultry synergy of hard-rock idioms and dance-forward sensibilities they deftly displayed in their 2013 debut Days Are Gone. So much so that at the time of its release, I went from being a faithful tried-and-true rock apologist to an open-armed true-blue evangelist for millennial poptimism. 

But it’s also true that my faith in the trio and their gospel of the monogenre had been shaken after their sophomore release, Something To Tell You, in 2017. Having reached the sad conclusion that what I regarded as a cloyingly glossy, peppy, and corporate-friendly brand of ready-made pop wasn’t going to satisfy my musical needs, I had long gone searching for newer artists willing to explore the possibilities of twenty-first-century pop-rock alchemy. After three years and many albums later, I knew that I was far from the glammy ersatz land of boutique-shop sounds where I’d last seen the perky sisters from the San Fernando Valley. But unbeknownst to me, they were, too. 

Before I go on, I want to point out that at the time that I’m writing this, there are two versions of Women in Music Pt. III, or Wimpiii, in circulation. The first is the original sixteen-song double album released on June 26, 2020, on Columbia records. The second is an eighteen-track expanded version released February 18th of this year also on Columbia, and that includes remixes of two different tracks: one featuring recent Haim collaborator and social media bestie Taylor Swift and the other featuring neo-soul eccentric and studio partner Thundercat. As the saying goes: “the devil’s in the details,” and though at face value, the two versions appear as indistinguishable as a set of identical twins, a closer look reveals vastly different identities. 

Let’s start with the original. 

Women In Music Pt. III is without a doubt the Haim sisters’ chef d’oeuvre. An expansive, ambitious, explorative, and self-reflective album that comes at a time when the very notion of the album itself seems increasingly out of style. With this, I don’t mean to say that artists and labels aren’t busy churning out records. But when looking at data for music consumption over the last decade, it’s easy to notice that the trends have steadily been tilting in favor of streaming platforms like Spotify or Apple Music. As a 32-year-old millennial who came of age in the late aughts and early 2010s, I’m well aware that the rise of algorithmic streaming and playlists have been gradually chipping away at the cultural gravitas of the concept album. This has meant that a big part of what comprises a cohesive listening experience and gives each artist their identity and sound has been replaced by a seemingly heterogeneous collage-like product.

Yet, it’s this diversity of sound that’s perhaps the most salient quality of WIMPIII. In an age in which identity or character-based signifiers have become categorical imperatives- symbols meant to help us make sense of the world’s inherent miscellaneousness, WIMPIII is a rock album in the same way that Exile On Main St. is a rock album: based on a categorical definition that’s extensive enough to be irrevocably inclusive.  A definition that stems from a studious understanding of aesthetics, of what it means to embody the animus behind rock music’s existential purpose. 

From its very beginnings, rock has been the steaming and bubbling cauldron into which artists have thrown select parts from other musical styles. Like its not-so-distant relative from the modern era, jazz, rock has always provided us with a vivid reflection of the country and the people that gave it birth. In keeping with the quintessentially American penchant for individual expression, it’s been transgressive and subversive, two apt ways to describe Women In Music Pt. III. After all, what better way is there to upend the paternalistic notion that rock music only comes in one flavor and with a fixed retrograde sound than by embracing the lushness found across various genres, both past and present? And what better way to inject selfhood into the impersonal context of music streaming than by creating an album whose breadth reflects and echoes the complex mechanics of algorithm-derived playlists? 

In WIMPIII, Haim plumbs the depths of identity and self in ways that they hadn’t before. They abandon the veneer of innocence and relative safety with which they were formerly, and unfairly, inextricably associated and bare themselves as flesh-and-bone human entities equally as unprepared to handle life’s vicissitudes as the rest of us. Struggles with mental health and personal growth take center stage, as does having to cope with the trauma linked to personal loss. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Two of the album’s first three singles – the deceptively-named, Lou Reed-inspired jazz-rocker “Summer Girl” and acoustic ballad “Hallelujah” – tackle these issues head-on. The first was written by lead singer Danielle Haim as a confessional letter of support to her partner as he battled with cancer, while the second addresses the unexpected loss of guitarist Alana Haim’s best friend years before. In both songs, the Haim sisters avail themselves of the powerful and soothing effects of harmony to underscore the necessity for closeness and its importance to the human condition. 

Equally relatable is their depiction of depression, especially that which results from the tedium that characterizes isolation. As if they were personally writing for WIMPIII’s original audience in real-time, songs like the UK-garage-influenced and instant hipster-techno classic “I Know Alone” and the EDM-tinged heavy-rocker “Now I’m In It'' delve into the frightening experience of disassociation that follows prolonged periods of seclusion. “Looking in the mirror again and again / Wishing the reflection would tell me something/I can't get a hold of myself / I can't get outta this situation” laments Danielle as she struggles with depression so profuse that she’s lost her grip on reality. She later complains that “nights turn into days / That turn to gray / Keep turning over,” and that “Some things never change / They never fade / Some things never grow / I know alone like no one else does.” I’d be hard-pressed to find another example that so aptly limns the ennui that came to define our everyday realities for most of the last year. 

But Haim doesn’t just stop there. Instead, the group acknowledges deep personal dissatisfaction in ’90s-rock throwback “I’ve Been Down,” or in the sax-heavy and “Summer Girl” counterpart “Los Angeles,” and in the swaggering alt-rocker “Gasoline.” They open up about the crippling effects of anxiety in the vibey and calypso-forward “Another Try,” in the hard-stomping “All That Ever Mattered,” and in the acoustic California folk-rocker “Leaning On You.” I should add that these last two songs showcase some exceptional guitar solos courtesy of Danielle Haim, as does the melancholy and bleak electro-grunge number “FUBT.” The trio also grapples with issues related to personal growth, particularly when consumed by a toxic relationship, as they do in the Grammy-nominated country twang rocker “The Steps.” 

And as the album’s title might suggest, Women In Music Part. III openly confronts and rallies against the incontrovertible and lamentable conditions endured by women in an industry in which double standards, sexual harassment, and personal debasement resulting from gender discrimination appear as foundational pillars. Nowhere is this better elucidated than in the biting Joni Mitchell-esque protest song “Man From The Magazine,” in which Danielle Haim plaintively indicts members of the music press for being complicit in the misogyny and abuse that are so prevalent in the music industry, and sadly, most everywhere else. “I don't wanna hear / It is what it is / It was what it was,” she sings defiantly before challenging her persecutor with disarming and caustic sincerity: “You expect me to deal with it / Til I'm perfectly numb / But you don't know how it feels / To be the cunt.”

WIMPIII’s sole moment of levity comes early on in the prurient and comical R&B-styled “3 AM,” a celebration of late-night hookups that acquired a growing touch of nostalgia as the pandemic wore on. In many ways, it’s hard to imagine this album being released into a world in which loneliness, anxiety, and monotony aren’t the norm. It’s equally difficult to imagine this Covid-19 world without it. 

Earlier, I mentioned that there were currently two versions of Women In Music Pt. III and that though similar on the surface, they were quite different in character. At the height of the first stay-at-home order last April, during a Zoom conversation, another friend referred to some well-known and pertinent words by the late German playwright Bertolt Brecht: 

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”

Art, like people, is the sum of disparate factors and variables coming together at singular moments in time. Experiences may not define us forever, but they do condition us in the short-run. What we do and how we do it varies depending on the circumstances, which is why sometimes, even the same routine might feel different depending on our disposition. In turn, our productive output resembles our present state of mind. WIMPIII is no exception.  

In its original form, the album is the byproduct of a long and arduous period of soul-searching and self-discovery. It’s a record conceived in darkness and fortuitously delivered into a world undergoing a similarly turbulent and challenging time. Like all great and legitimate art, it highlights the power of individual human strength and the virtues of survival. It underscores our need for closeness, compassion, and solidarity and the importance of collective long-term vision-all motifs that would have resonated even in times of normalcy but took on new significance during a global pandemic. 

The extended edition, on the other hand, is the product of re-emerging decadence and self-indulgence. It mirrors an increasingly relaxed nature in the face of a growing sense of comfort and a belief that better times lie right around the corner. It’s the crepuscular song of early morning and the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made it to a new day. In that sense, bringing in talented yet ultimately arbitrary artists like Swift or Thundercat can only signal a saccharine and superfluous endeavor. The fact that the new version of the album came out a month before the Grammys in which both Haim and Swift are competing for Album Of The Year reminds me that this is just a deliberate promotional gimmick. 

But I can’t and won’t blame the band because I’m also reminded that art like people is universally prone to absurdity and self-sabotage -- something that’s particularly true of rock music. Because both are perpetually tethered to a condition outside of their control, beholden to the commandeering whims of nature and their DNA. 

If rock music has taught me anything, it’s that art is the meeting place of longing and waiting and that an artist’s best work occurs in the transit between what’s predictable and unforeseen, between feeling and reality. As a whole, even after the additional two remixes, Women In Music Pt. III occupies this hypnagogic state. It gives us the portrait of a band as they inhabit a dreamworld entirely of their own making, one from which they, like all of us, will have to awaken soon enough. 

To quote from their upbeat and surreal rocker “Up From A Dream”: 

“Something you see wakes you up from the dream/
Wanna go back to sleep but now/ you're up from the dream/
Walk into the kitchen…And you have changed in the blink of an eye.” 

God, what a difference time makes. 

Rating: A

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