How Heart Got Their Hard Rock Edge Back

When Heart released their debut album, Dreamboat Annie in 1976, it was an incendiary rush that was unlike anything we had heard in hard rock before. Ann Wilson’s intense, howling vocals on tracks like “Crazy On You” and “Magic Man” had an immediate impact on the first listen. Of course, the album came out 14 years before I was born, but I still have a distinct memory of hearing “Crazy On You” for the first time at age 13 and thinking: “what is this?!” I could only imagine that feeling was more intense when they were first introduced to the world. To be sure, there had plenty of successful women in rock before, but few had shredded and howled quite like the Wilson sisters. When they released their sophomore effort, Little Queen, which contained the immortal “Barracuda” — probably the best song in their repertoire — their reputation as one of hard rock’s most undeniably badass acts had been firmly sealed.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. As the band went into the early 80s, their popularity had dwindled. Albums like Private Audition and Passionworks had failed to capture the attention of the public the way their earlier work had. In order to remain part of the top 40 crowd, Heart made a conscious decision to keep with the times and adopt a more commercial sound. The result was their self-titled 1985 album, which became one of their biggest successes. It sold five million copies, and had massive hits like “These Dreams,” “Never” and “What About Love.” But while the album’s mainstream success was undeniable, the group had also lost all of the edge that had made them so great. Professional hitmakers were brought in, and the result was a bunch of radio-ready ballads that dominated the airwaves, but lacked the spirit of their brilliant early works.

This would continue to be the case for their follow up album, Bad Animals. Now, in the interest of “credit where credit is due,” that album should get some credit for the massive hit “Alone,” which was easily the best song of their 80s schmaltz period. Sure, it was a concoction made in a lab by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, the same duo that wrote “Like A Virgin” for Madonna, but a good song is a good song, and while it was still no “Crazy on You,” it was at least a little closer to Heart’s heyday than “These Dreams.” The follow-up, 1990’s Brigade was a lot like its predecessors; it had a massive hit with “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You,” and a bunch of songs written by outside songwriters.

Thankfully, the trend ended there, and on subsequent releases, the Wilson sisters would go back to largely writing their own material. Still, it would take some time for the public to notice. 1993’s Desire Walks On had some interesting moments, like a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells,” but it only made to No. 48 on the Billboard 200. Other than a Christmas album in 2001, this was Heart’s only studio work until 2004’s Jupiters Darling. This album is intriguing in retrospect because it had brought back a folk element to their sound that was often seen in their early years, but had been absent in their 80s commercial years. The album only made it No. 94, and it is one of the lowest-selling album of their career, but it’s certainly an intriguing album in retrospect, and it might rank as the most underrated album they’ve ever made.

Jupiters Darling was the album that finally gave Heart their groove back, but it was the follow-up, 2010’s Red Velvet Car that re-entered them into the public conscious. That album reached the top 10 and was praised by critics who rejoiced as the sound had finally re-discovered the hard rock sound that defined their best work. Tracks like “W.T.F.” were as blisteringly heavy as anything the band had done in years, while the sultry title track brought back the vibes of “Magic Man.” It was a perfect comeback record, and it was solidified with 2012’s equally strong Fanatic. These two albums served notice that Heart were back and at the top of their game yet again.

Four years later, the band is back with their new album, Beautiful Broken, and the band’s winning streak appears to have been extended. The first single released was the title track, which featured a killer guest spot from Metallica’s James Hetfield. The band is as sure-footed as ever, and their late-period efforts continue to be incredibly rewarding. For those who were disappointed by the commercially-successful-but-ultimately-empty late 80s work, these last few albums have been quite a joy. Heart is as strong as ever, and if their new album is any indication, there’s no reason why they can’t put out great records for years to come.