Stevie Nicks Revisited
As one third of Fleetwood Mac’s singer/songwriter triumvirate, Stevie Nicks was a key part of the band’s almost unprecedented success in the ‘70s.
Songs like “Rhiannon,” “Dreams,” “Gold Dust Woman” and “Sara” were big hits that endured on radio for decades. While Nicks was a focus of fan attention, behind the scenes she sometimes struggled for recognition. Unlike Christine McVie or Lindsey Buckingham, she didn’t play an instrument or arrange music. Her collaboration with ex-boyfriend Buckingham produced memorable songs, but tension between them during the recording of the landmark Rumours and for years thereafter was legendary. Moreover, while Nicks loved being in Fleetwood Mac, the lack of control she had could be a frustration. She was heartbroken when her “Silver Springs,” written for her mother, was removed from Rumours at the 11th hour and thereafter was left in limbo for years.
It was almost inevitable that Nicks would consider pursuing a solo career, but infamously, Warner Bros. hadn’t even signed Nicks to a deal for her solo material, as they had with Buckingham and McVie. Nicks’s management formed Modern Records as a distribution vehicle for her highly successful debut. Ironically, her catalogue would eventually be subsumed into Warner.
With a fine new album recently out, it’s a good time to revisit the solo career of Stevie Nicks.
Bella Donna (1981)
Before the release of Bella Donna, the perception was that Stevie Nicks, without Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac, would create arty, lightweight music without commercial appeal. And certainly, Nicks’s songs have always had a strong poetic impulse and she’d shown a fondness for gentle, folk-tinged ballads. Bella Donna silenced a lot of critics with its mix of powerful rock songs, energetic pop and gentle ballads, working in more of Nicks’s folk and country influences than was possible with the Mac. Tom Petty collaboration “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” was a huge hit and served notice that Nicks could deliver a powerful rock song without her bandmates, while the anthemic “Edge of Seventeen” became her solo signature. Bittersweet “Leather and Lace,” with Don Henley on harmony, translated Nicks’s country inspirations into the pop world for a beautiful, timeless ballad and the more overtly country-influenced “After the Glitter Fades” also became a minor hit. But the album is more than its singles. The album-opening title cut is an excellent mission statement, building from an almost Americana ballad in the opening verse into a driving rock anthem that’s an underappreciated gem in the Nicks catalogue. Nicks worked a variety of moods quite effectively, including the mystery of “How Still My Love,” and referenced her Mac success in cuts like “Outside the Rain” and “Think About It.” Henley returned for the dramatic finale, wrenching dustbowl ballad “The Highwayman.” Bella Donna was a huge hit and now, more than three decades later, is as vital as it ever was, a touchstone for generations of female singers that followed.
The Wild Heart (1983)
After reuniting with Fleetwood Mac for Mirage (which included her big hit “Gypsy”), Stevie Nicks quickly returned with her sophomore solo collection. The Wild Heart didn’t stray much from the Bella Donna template, but did add some stylistic flourishes to a strong collection of songs that produced another stream of hits for the singer. “Stand Back” stormed the charts with its then-cutting edge union of ‘80s synths and a driving rock beat, while Nicks scored another hit with “If Anyone Falls,” which interwove synths into a mid-tempo southern-styled groove. Nicks delivered more convincing rockers and uptempo numbers, like “Enchanted” and the bracing title tune. She reunited with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for the Southern Gothic-tinged “I Will Run To You.” And the album boasts two of her most enduring ballads: “Nightbird,” haunting and rhythmic, became a radio hit, while the stately, epic-length “Beauty and the Beast” has developed into an enduring concert favorite. If The Wild Heart didn’t break new ground, it was still a collection of strong songs that’s held up quite well over the years since its release.
Rock A Little (1985)
In a period of less than five years, Stevie Nicks turned out three solo collections and collaborated on a Fleetwood Mac album. Rock A Little found subtle ways to tweak Nicks’s solo formula, mixing trendy ‘80s elements with her classic rock approach. If that approach ties Rock more to its time period than any of Nicks’s other albums, it manages to avoid sounding dated when heard a few decades on. The album’s three singles were also three of the singer’s best songs. “Talk to Me” demonstrated Nicks’s mastery of mid-tempo adult pop and was a much-deserved cross-format hit. Album opener “I Can’t Wait” is one of Nicks’s best rock songs; the use of synth effects enhanced the driving song, adding extra punch and urgency. And “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You” may have an unwieldy title, but the gentle, heartfelt ballad may be Nicks’s most emotionally connected performance ever. The bulk of the album is filled with quality cuts that are often overlooked in Nicks’s catalogue, which is too bad. Mid-tempo cuts like “Sister Honey,” “Imperial Hotel” and “Some Become Strangers” might not have been “singles” material, but they’re melodic and engaging. The title track worked an effectively sinister groove and “I Sing for the Things” was an effective, straight-forward ballad. Nicks began taking some lyrical chances on Rock A Little and if it’s not her easiest album to delve into, it’s worth hearing.
The Other Side of the Mirror (1989)
After several years devoted to Fleetwood Mac projects, Stevie Nicks returned with what may be her most misunderstood album. Reviews at the time The Other Side of the Mirror was released weren’t kind; the album’s complex imagery and impressionistic lyrics seemed to require more effort than many critics and listeners wanted to expend. The interesting thing in listening to Mirror a quarter century later is how well these songs have aged. Many fans probably ignored Mirror at the time, which is too bad, because there’s a lot to like here. Even at the time, a handful of cuts stood out. “Rooms on Fire” was an insistent, unsettling mid-tempo rocker that was a deserved smash (Nicks’s last big solo Top 40 hit). The sinister rock groove of “Whole Lotta Trouble” built to an anthemic climax, while the Bruce Hornsby duet “Two Kinds of Love” was a classy adult pop moment. The other cut that stood out at the time was Nicks’ take on the Johnny Cash classic “I Still Miss Someone,” a marriage of electronic touches with the singer’s country roots coming off as odd, yet somehow compelling. Venturing beyond those cuts, though, and fans will find a lot to embrace. “Long Way to Go” is a first rate rock song, very much in the classic Stevie Nicks mold, and “Ooh My Love” is an overlooked, mid-tempo gem. Nicks worked some nice lyrical imagery in songs like “Juliet” and “Alice,” idiosyncratic tunes whose impact grows with each hearing. And the climactic mid-tempo rock of “Doing the Best I Can (Escape from Berlin)” is probably one of the most underrated performances in Nicks’s career. The Other Side of the Mirror may not be the best entry point into the Stevie Nicks discography, but it’s an unfairly undervalued collection of songs that even many devoted fans may have written off. It’s worth a shot after you’ve already experienced the rest of Nicks’ ‘80s albums.
Street Angel (1994)
After 1991’s “Best of” collection Timespace and an ill-received Fleetwood Mac album that prompted Stevie Nicks to quit the band for several years, the singer resurfaced with Street Angel. It’s generally considered to be the low point of Nicks’s solo catalogue and even she has acknowledged it wasn’t her best work. And even so, there are no outright bad songs on Angel, but several cuts feel unfocused or underdeveloped. The albums two singles, while not big hits, were classic Nicks and could easily have fit on her other albums. “Maybe Love Will Change Your Mind” was a buoyant piece of adult pop that found the singer in good form, while “Blue Denim” was a mid-tempo rock gem, probably the track that felt most like a “Stevie Nicks song” on the album. There were a few other decent moments on the collection, too. Nicks got a lot of attention for her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman,” a nice connection to the singer’s folk roots. “Docklands” was a sturdy rocker and “Listen to the Rain” worked some nice imagery. The most intriguing cut was folk ballad “Rose Garden,” a song that Nicks wrote when she was 18. Returning to the lyrics that explored the desire for love and success from a naïve viewpoint with the wealth of life experience Nicks amassed in the years that had intervened since was a great idea and provides the emotional high point of the album. Fans would be better served cherry-picking the few strong moments from this album.
After the Fleetwood Mac reunion that finally saw Stevie Nicks’s “Silver Springs” become a much deserved radio hit, the singer took a moment to survey two decades of solo work. While Nicks has two excellent single-disc retrospectives in her catalogue (1991’s Timespace and 2007’s Crystal Visions), the three-disc Enchanted is a cornucopia for her fans. All of the singles and key album cuts from her first few solo albums are accounted for here. But then Enchanted adds in a healthy serving of unreleased tracks, B-sides and soundtrack contributions, most quite strong, that would easily have fit in on any of Nicks’s releases. Nicks added variety by including alternate takes on some songs, such as a live version of “Edge of Seventeen,” a live-in-studio take on her Mac signature “Rhiannon,” an extended rock mix of “I Can’t Wait” and demo versions of songs “Twisted” (from the Twister soundtrack) and “Sweet Girl” (from the Mac reunion The Dance) that were quite different from the versions fans might have known. Some of the less familiar cuts were quite excellent, especially “One More Big Time Rock and Roll Star,” “Gold and Braid,” “Garbo” and soundtrack cuts “Violet and Blue,” “Battle of the Dragon” and “Somebody Stand By Me.” Nicks turned in a couple of nice covers, including a great take on pal Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” (from the Party of Five soundtrack) and the collection also included two hit duets that pre-date the launch of her solo career: “Whenever I Call You Friend” (with Kenny Loggins) and “Gold” (with John Stewart). Of particular interest for long-time fans was the inclusion of “Long Distance Winner” from Buckingham/Nicks, the early ‘70s album that brought the duo to Fleetwood Mac’s attention. It’s a great song that makes you wish someone would re-release the whole album. Enchanted might be overwhelming for casual fans, but for devotees it’s essential.
Trouble in Shangri-La (2001)
For her first collection of new solo songs in seven years, Stevie Nicks rounded up a lot of her friends and admirers, like Sheryl Crow, John Shanks, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Maines and Macy Gray. Trouble brought Nicks into the modern world of pop and rock quite successfully. While the album included some classy adult pop like single “Every Day” and gentler tracks like “It’s Only Love,” “I Miss You” and “Love Changes” (all well done), she didn’t rely on them and proved she still had plenty in the tank. “Fall from Grace” was a stunning cut, a driving rock anthem that built to a big finish. “Planets of the Universe” and the title cut both skillfully mixed Nicks’s penchant for spacey imagery into strong rock settings. Mid-tempo cut “Sorcerer,” with Crow on harmony, became the album’s signature for good reason, it’s a classic Nicks combination of mysterious imagery with some surprising musical choices. It’s one of several songs that worked some exotic sounds, including the almost Middle Eastern-flavored “Bombay Sapphires” (with Gray on harmony). “Love Is,” Nicks’s collaboration with Sarah McLachlan, is a heart-rending ballad that closed out the collection in fine form. Highly recommended.
The Soundstage Sessions (2009)
While Stevie Nicks had participated in several live albums for Fleetwood Mac and had some home videos of her solo concerts available, The Soundstage Sessions was her first solo live album. Her stated motivation in releasing it was to inspire young female singers to embrace rock, so while there are some ballads in this brief, 10-song collection, her focus was more on mid- and fast-tempo rocks songs. She didn’t completely re-invent any of her tunes, but she and her backing band put some nice spins on several songs that make them worth hearing. Nicks included both solo and Mac songs here, as well as two covers. She did a nice take on the Dave Matthews Band hit “Crash Into Me” that craftily subverted the pubescent male fantasy of the original, but the real gold was her world-weary take on the Bonnie Raitt gem “Circle Dance,” a song Nicks has performed in concert in recent years. Once again, this isn’t really an album for casual fans, but the Nicks faithful will want to check it out.
In Your Dreams (2011)
The ten years that separated In Your Dreams from Trouble in Shangri-La seem like a long stretch, but didn’t necessarily feel that way. Stevie Nicks was hardly inactive. Her half of 2003’s Fleetwood Mac album Say You Will was basically a Nicks solo album mashed with a Lindsey Buckingham solo album, and she released another hits collection and live album. She toured frequently and popped up with lots of other artists, either in studio or in concert. Plus she was a tireless advocate for injured members of the military. So it’s understandable why the gap between albums of new material was so long. Fortunately, In Your Dreams was worth the wait. Nicks, working with Dave Stewart as producer, whipped up a collection of first-rate material that showed she wasn’t done rocking (“Wide Sargasso Sea” and “Ghosts Are Gone” pack particular punch). A lot of the material falls more into the mid-tempo part of the singer’s repertoire, with excellent cuts like lead single “Secret Love,” “You May Be the One” and “Annabelle Lee,” an interpolation of the classic Poe poem that works better than it has any right to. But as is often the case, Nicks’s most idiosyncratic songs are her best. “Moonlight (A Vampire’s Dream)” was a jaw-dropping epic ballad that features strong lyrics and an impassioned vocal. Some might have sniped that Nicks’s lyrics about vampires, witches and spirits was trend-chasing, but the fact is she’s been working that lyrical terrain for decades. It was more like the zeitgeist finally caught up to her. “New Orleans” was a distinctive ballad with a strong rhythm that came off as an appealing exercise in gypsy folk. But the most compelling song was the steely, insistent “Soldier’s Angel.” Featuring Buckingham on harmony, it rarely raised above a hush as it refracted Nicks’s experiences working with wounded members of the military into a gripping, minor-key showcase that quoted Nicks’s old lyric “No one walks away from this battle” (from soundtrack cut “Battle of the Dragon”) and powerfully recontextualized it. It’s a stunning achievement and is part of a strong, vital collection.
24 Karat Gold: Songs from the Vault (2014)
Like many writers, Stevie Nicks has lots of songs she’d started but never finished. Her last two collections of new material had each included a couple of songs she’s successfully completed after having started them decades earlier, so devoting a whole album to them is a logical move. The songs on this collection span from the late ‘60s to the mid-‘90s, with the bulk coming from her ‘70s/’80s heyday. So if 24 Karat Gold plays like a lost Nicks album from the ‘80s, it’s not a surprise. The album features the usual mix of energetic rockers, stylish mid-tempo cuts and lovely ballads for which Nicks albums are known. It’s an engaging, fun collection that features great tunes like mid-tempo “The Dealer” and “All the Beautiful Worlds.” Album opener “Starshine” is a fun, energetic rocker that brings back the hippie sensibilities of the ’70s, while the idiosyncratic “Mabel Normand” could come from no one but Nicks. The ballads here are especially strong. “Lady” pairs Nicks’s impassioned vocals with little more than a strong piano line to powerful effect. “She Loves Him Still” has an intriguing melancholy and Nicks’ pals Lady Antebellum provide simpatico harmony to “Blue Water.” Possibly the most emotional cut is the one song that Nicks didn’t write. “Carousel” is a lovely, bittersweet 2011 song from Nicks protégé Vanessa Carlton that’s long deserved a wider audience. It was a favorite of Nicks’s mother before she died, so Nicks has recorded her own version of it, with her niece and Carlton providing harmony. It is, simply, stunning. There are no weak moments on 24 Karat Gold, it’s a great idea executed almost flawlessly.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on October 13, 2014.