Last week, Jack Antonoff gave a fascinating interview in which he discussed the elements of a perfect pop song. “Anything I’ve done that I felt was great started with a big concept,” he says. “You start with the concept and build from there, whether it’s a beat or a guitar part.” Antonoff could be describing “We Are Young,” the breakthrough hit for his band fun., or any number of songs by Taylor Swift and Lorde that he’s co-written. He could also be talking about Days Are Gone, the winning 2013 debut album by Haim.
Like Antonoff, the trio of Haim sisters — Danielle, Alana, and Este — are pivotal figures in the most important music story of the decade, which is the non-hostile takeover of the indie underground by the pop mainstream. In the early ’10s, after the term “indie” had been all but rendered meaningless as a signifier of financial independence from corporations, it finally also lost symbolic meaning as (to use another outmoded word) an “alternative” to pop with the rise of a new generation of artists and listeners that refused to make “snobby” distinctions between high art and mass commerce.
No longer would indie musicians stand in opposition to glossy music made by millionaires and consumed by the hoi polloi; they would now adopt those sounds as a new sonic blueprint upon which to make their own songs, and merge them with all of the regular indie-rock reference points. If indie music in the ’80s and ’90s had been guided by an “either/or” principle that disrupted the mainstream from the bottom up, the new M.O. was “all of the above,” which ultimately swallowed the underground whole. It was now a post-snob world.
When Days Are Gone came out (along with other crucial post-snob touchstones released around the same time, including Lorde’s Pure Heroine and The 1975’s self-titled debut), it represented a culmination of this philosophical shift. Equally conversant in Fleetwood Mac, Rihanna, Fiona Apple, and Wilson Phillips, Haim epitomized the “all of the above” ethos, pulling freely from all eras of music no matter their generational associations or worrisome historical/critical baggage. Listening to Days Are Gone, it suddenly seemed perfectly reasonable to hear a Steely Dan guitar solo in the middle of a bouncy, Whitney Houston-style pop jam. These were young women who could rock like cool dads; they were also classic-rock heads whose favorite rock star was Beyonce. That was the “big concept” of Days Were Gone: Music culture from now on will no longer be stratified.
The backstory on Something To Tell You, the first Haim album in four years, is that the sisters struggled with writers’ block for months until, oddly, coming up with a track that ultimately was rejected for the Trainwreck soundtrack opened the floodgates of inspiration. I can confirm that there are 11 songs on Something To Tell You, and they were all definitely written to completion. But a new “big concept” that would’ve elevated the album apparently was elusive. Whereas Days Are Gone felt prescient and perfectly suited for its moment, Something To Tell You sounds like a lesser version of Days Are Gone. And unlike in 2013, there’s already a glut of retro, Reagan-era pop records in 2017.
The most immediate problem with Something To Tell You is its lack of frothy, catchy, and easily thinkpiece-able jams. What is modern pop if not a delivery system for precisely that product? Days Are Gone was an embarrassment of riches in that regard, spinning off a steady stream of popular favorites — on music websites and social media, if not the radio — including “The Wire,” “Falling,” “Forever,” and “If I Could Change Your Mind.” (It helped that Haim had an EP of strong material on which to draw on for Days Are Gone.) For Something To Tell You, Haim reunited with producer Ariel Rechtshaid, and enlisted another gifted pop producer, Rostam Batmanglij, to help give their songs a familar vintage sheen. You can tell that every drum sound and keyboard tone has been thoughtfully deployed to give Something To Tell You that necessary “anytime pop” quality, where it evokes the warm nostalgia of ’80s and ’90s Top 40 radio without quite devolving into full-on pastiche.