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.
If only the songs lived up to the production. The nagging feeling that early singles like “Right Now” and “Want You Back” were trying extra hard and still not cutting it pervades the album, which is loaded with choruses that don’t stick and yet are endlessly repeated like dull, uninspired campaign slogans. (Haim should’ve called this record Trumped Up Trickle Down.) At best, Something To Tell You is pleasant but slight, like “Little Of Your Love,” a countyish pop song that elaborates on the stealth Shania Twain strain of Days Are Gone. “You Never Knew” is another nice iteration of Haim’s Tango In The Night side — it’s like avant-garde waiting room music.
But Haim’s once-endearing affectations — the weirdly jumpy vocal ticks, the unironic soft-rock worship, the unrelenting sunniness — have hardened into hollow schtick. “Nothing’s Wrong” is supposed to be an emotional “love on the rocks” ballad, but the peerlessly shiny veneer of Haim’s shrill harmonies is oppressive, even annoying. Too many tracks simply fail to take off, most notably “Right Now,” which spends several minutes seemingly building to a catharsis that never arrives before finally petering out. For all the warmth that Haim strains to emanate, Something To Tell You is curiously remote.
One can’t help comparing Something To Tell You to Lorde’s recent sophomore release Melodrama, which swiftly proceeded to take over the summer of 2017 upon release last month. Haim and Lorde’s career have operated on a close parallel — Days Are Gone and Pure Heroine came out on the same day (Sept. 27, 2013), and now Haim’s second LP is set to arrive shortly after Lorde’s second album. But while Days Are Gone and Pure Heroine had a comparable impact on music culture upon release, Lorde has since eclipsed Haim in pretty much every way. With Melodrama, Lorde has embraced her “imperial pop” period head-on, making a record that’s big and bold and accommodating to the sizable cult of personality that’s developed around her songwriting voice. Lorde has made herself into an archetype because that’s what pop stars do. But at least it’s an archetype of her own creation.
Something To Tell You doesn’t have nearly that kind of heft. Haim has not joined Lorde on the proverbial “next level.” Instead, Something To Tell You resembles the sort of low-stakes, “fun but not actually popular” indie-pop record that was rendered obsolete four years ago by Days Are Gone and Pure Heroine. These days, Haim is stuck in a crowded lane that it helped to invent but no longer dominates — along with Lorde, there’s The xx, Halsey, Paramore, Chvrches, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Charli XCX making frothy retro pop records, among many, many other less notable artists. And let’s not forget the biggest star of all, Haim’s old pal Taylor Swift, whose 1989 now seems like the ultimate swagger-jack of Days Are Gone.
As for Haim, you can feel them shrinking from their moment. There is no big idea driving Something To Tell You — it is fatally small.