Album Review: HAIM, ‘Women in Music Pt. III’

    HAIM know how to craft an immaculate pop song. ‘Want You Back’, a highlight from their last album, 2017’s Something to Tell You, is a masterclass in pop songcraft, to the point where its infectious qualities almost conceal its emotionally charged subject matter. On that album, the indie rock group – comprised of sisters Danielle, Alana, and Este Haim – took their retro-leaning, summery blend of classic rock and modern pop to new heights. But despite its blissful melodies, their sophomore effort didn’t earn them the same rapturous response as their acclaimed 2013 debut Days Are Gone – expectations were high, and there was a fear that the group might be relying on the formula that brought them success a little too much this time around, even if they’d honed it to near perfection.

    Women in Music Pt. III, with all its messy contradictions, does not fall into that trap. Though still rife with plenty of hooks and catchy choruses, the Los Angeles trio’s latest reveals a different side of the Haim sisters – many different sides, in fact. It’s their boldest, most experimental album to date, one that showcases their knack for nuanced yet emotive songwriting without sacrificing the effortless cool of their previous releases. HAIM don’t just step into a wide range of styles here; they prove that they can pull off every single one of them with just as much personality and charm. ‘Up from a Dream’ boasts a strutting, heavy guitar riff that calls back Heart; the synth-driven ‘I Know Alone’ sounds like a less indulgent 1975 song; ‘3am’ is a funky R&B tune as solid as any. Somehow, folk cuts like ‘Leaning on You’ and the Joni Mitchell-inspired ‘Man from the Magazine’ harmoniously coexist alongside the beach-ready ‘Another Try’ and the piercing heavy metal wails of ‘All That Ever Mattered’.

    Rather than coming off as cluttered or unfocused, though, the diverse and eclectic sonic palette of WIMPIII feels like a flower opening up to unveil its many colours. That openness comes through in the album’s sharp lyricism, too, which finds the band at their most personal and vulnerable. “Been a couple days since I’ve been out/ Calling all my friends, but they won’t pick up,” Danielle sings on ‘I Know Alone’, a track that perfectly captures the cycle of loneliness that we’ve all experienced during quarantine as well as the feelings of worthlessness it comes with. As its title suggests, ‘I’ve Been Down’ delves further into the singer’s depression, but ends with the hopeful chant of “I think that we need to come together.” Elsewhere, the band’s raw honesty leads to some uncompromisingly confrontational moments: on the stand-out ‘The Steps’, Danielle confidently declares: “Every day I wake up and make money for myself/ And though we share a bed/ You know that I don’t need your help/ Do you understand?” A similar exploration of gender dynamics resurfaces on ‘Man from the Magazine’, this time exposing the kind of sexist comments targeted towards “women in music”, from “Do you make the same faces in bed?” to “Hey girl, why don’t you play a few bars?”

    Much of WIMPIII deals with the complicated feelings of trying to hold onto a doomed relationship; not a new subject for HAIM, but never so candidly laid out. “It’s f*cked up, but it’s true/ That I love you like I do,” Danielle admits on ‘FUBT’ against a lone but punchy electric guitar. On the groovy ‘Don’t Wanna’ – the closest the album comes to sounding like the band’s previous outings – she continuously repeats that she doesn’t want to give up on the relationship, even if that very fact probably isn’t a good sign. But when she proclaims that “All that ever mattered was you” on the adventurous ‘All That Ever Mattered’, it’s not framed as a heartfelt affirmation but a bitter attack; she’s tired of being treated this way. The track features a larger-than-life solo and a throbbing drum kick, with Rostam’s production standing out. The album has a similar flair to Clairo’s Immunity, another album he co-produced, in the way it amplifies that sense of vulnerability with a sound that’s both subtly expansive and intimate; but it also calls back Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride, a record which, though somewhat overstuffed, featured noteworthy contributions from both Danielle and her partner Ariel Rechtshaid.

    The three songs that served as a teaser for this new era in the band’s career – ‘Summer Girl’, ‘Now I’m In It’, and ‘Hallelujah’ – appear as bonus tracks here, each with their own unique eccentricities. ‘Summer Girl’ is a laid-back, tender homage to Lou Reed that hints at the jazz-inflected sound of tracks like opener ‘Los Angeles’, while ‘Now I’m In It’ is another propulsive synth jam for anyone who wants more of what ‘I Know Alone’ has to offer. But it’s ‘Hallelujah’ that hits the hardest, a finger-plucked acoustic ballad in which Alana reflects on the loss of a friend while Este opens up about her struggle with diabetes. More than anything, the track is about sisterhood: “Laughing together like our thoughts are harmonized/ Been that way since ’95,” they sing. Perhaps that sense of togetherness is part of what makes WIMPIII such an inviting journey – no matter how many different paths the album takes, HAIM are always in sync.

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    HAIM know how to craft an immaculate pop song. ‘Want You Back’, a highlight from their last album, 2017's Something to Tell You, is a masterclass in pop songcraft, to the point where its infectious qualities almost conceal its emotionally charged subject matter. On...Album Review: HAIM, 'Women in Music Pt. III'