Este, Danielle and Alana Haim played their first gig 20 years ago, at Canter’s Jewish deli in their hometown of Los Angeles. The sisters were 13, ten and eight respectively. Este wore sparkly jeans, Danielle had butterfly clips in her hair, and all three were paid in matzo ball soup. Recently the band, properly established as Haim in 2007, returned to Canter’s for a live-streamed set to mark the release of their third album, Women in Music Pt. III. This time around the sisters drank tequila and raised several thousand dollars for the Bail Project.
It seems right that Haim celebrated their new album – which they affectionately call “wimpiii” – with a homecoming of sorts. For though it is a bracingly experimental record, in which the multi-instrumentalists foray into multiple genres over 16 tracks, it is also their most intimate work yet. Where Days Are Gone (2013) and Something to Tell You (2017) offered glossy pop-rock – their catchy rhythms owing as much to contemporary R&B as their retro choruses did to Fleetwood Mac – Women in Music Pt. III is rawer. It has less of a sheen.
Its title is a sassy front, a rebuttal to journalists who ask “What’s it like being women in the music industry?”, which the sublime “Man From the Magazine” explores with quintessential wit. But the song doesn’t play for laughs. Its layered acoustic guitars ache with a despair never previously heard from Haim.
Haim have said that their decision to write and record more directly personal music than ever before is down to their recent off-stage realities. Each brought a trauma to the studio: Este’s ordeal living and touring with Type 1 diabetes; Alana’s prolonged grief at the death of a close friend; and, most crucial to the album’s lyrical content, lead singer Danielle’s experience of depression, which she has traced to the cancer diagnosis of her partner and co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid several years ago.
“I’ve been down,” sings Danielle with furious intent on a track of the same name, owning up to her desolation, asking ,“Can you help me out?” On the cool Americana shuffle of “Gasoline” she calls, “I get sad, you know I get sad,” over woozy flange guitar, while “I Know Alone” pulses with glitchy production. There is no wallowing here, only declaration.
It is reassuring that Haim, whose music has always been instinctively rhythm-driven, have not relented that innate sensibility despite these heavy lyrical themes. Purposeful walking – most often as a trio, down an LA boulevard – has become a mainstay of their music videos. This insistence on moving forward, simply putting one foot in front of the other, rings out loud throughout this propulsive record. Este’s forthright basslines push each track on, injecting urgency into even the most tender of moments.
The album’s divine light is the country-inflected “Hallelujah”, on which Haim explicitly bask in their sisterly love for the first time. As a stand-alone track, it is almost saccharine, but within the context of the album, its heavy bliss is moving. Each sister takes a verse in turn. Alana sings of the friend she has lost, and looks to her sisters for their support. Este and Danielle too show gratitude. They sing lyrics that elsewhere might seem clichéd – “I met two angels but they were in disguise” or, “Three roads, one line” – but here, surrounded by so much raw material, they speak only with conviction. The close harmony in which they sing – and which sometimes seems only possible because of their blood relation, so tight and exacting are their voices together – only makes this acoustic interlude more profound.
This emotional frankness has provided Haim, along with producers Rechtshaid and Rostam Batmanglij (formerly of Vampire Weekend), with a willingness to break out of their original polished pop box. The cross-genre result is liberating. A jazz saxophone opens the album and reappears on closer “Summer Girl”, a funked-up love song that alludes to Rechtshaid’s illness and borrows from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”. “3AM” struts with a Tame Impala-like club psychedelia, while the lo-fi bass of “Up From a Dream” is reminiscent of gnarly indie rock.
Whatever genre they lean into, Haim keep up the push and pull between a biting darkness and a bop-ready beat, insistent that they can do both. This variation means Women in Music Pt. III doesn’t run as a perfect record; it doesn’t stick to one straight theme or sonic texture. Rather, it teases out and runs away with the contradictions, ups, downs, strengths and weaknesses of its writers, and enjoys these multiplicities. For that boldness, it is all the more affecting.
“Women in Music Pt. III” is out now on Columbia
This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation