A certain lightness has always played about the work of Haim, the three multi-instrumentalist sisters from Los Angeles. Even as their two critically acclaimed albums, indebted to R&B and soft rock, often riffed on romantic angst, a sense of effortlessness remained uppermost in the band’s sound. Like their most obvious lodestones, Fleetwood Mac, there was no topic that Haim’s retro harmonies could not turn into insouciant-sounding gold.
Haim’s third album retains some of their perpetual glide. But this is a set in which everyone is dancing with tears in their eyes, and one where Haim’s pat affiliation to 70s west coast truisms undergoes some interesting seepage. More so than ever before, Haim venture outside their musical Hotel California, with jazz saxophone and UK garage beats heading up a lively new intake of sounds. Intermittent blasts of lurid electric guitar – witness the chorusing riffola on All That Ever Mattered – are there to underline the trio’s allegiance to rock music. The song’s treated banshee wails attest both to the band’s interest in fresh production textures and the need for a little primal scream therapy.
Making Women in Music Pt III – WIMPIII or “wimpee” in short – the band were in some disarray. As they tell it, all three Haims were hit by post-tour comedown in 2018, a common enough affliction among musicians. Each also had a few couture demons of their own to wrangle.
Doctors warned Este Haim she may have to change career, as touring was wreaking havoc with her type 1 diabetes. Alana Haim had still not properly grieved her best friend, lost in a car crash in 2012, just before the band went on tour to support their first album. Here, the country-leaning Hallelujah – a song on which each sister sings a verse – finds Alana remembering her late pal while her sisters express their gratitude for each other.
Meanwhile, Danielle Haim, the band’s fulcrum, found herself in a depression, “taping up the windows of [her] house”, “turning away help”. Correlation is not causality, but the strain of quietly supporting her partner, Haim producer Ariel Rechtshaid, through a not-widely-broadcast diagnosis of testicular cancer (he is now in remission) may have had a role. Her sisters intervened, urging Danielle into therapy. The therapist in turn urged Danielle to write it out, giving rise to what is Haim’s most lyrically direct album so far.
While Summer Girl – Haim’s inspired rewrite of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, first released almost a year ago – offered Rechtshaid bleary sunshine and “unconditional love”, a further trio of thoughtful, low-key songs take a deep dive into Danielle’s own dark places. Two are among the tracks already released during this album’s long period of Covid limbo; WIMPIII was announced for spring, then delayed till late summer, then brought forward. I Know Alone, with its two-step beat and Joni Mitchell reference, and Now I’m in It (electronic pop, elegiac middle eight) are both fine additions to the canon of sad bangers.
I’ve Been Down, meanwhile, is a minor revelation; looser, rattlier and more intimate than the majority of Haim songs, with speaking roles for a saxophone and discreet piano lines. Danielle half-raps lines such as “The love of my life sleeping by my side, but I’m still down.”
Women in Music Pt III gives vent to other feelings, too. The album’s cover shot finds Haim in their local deli – they played an early gig there – framed by a range of fat, dangling salamis. The title, meanwhile, rolls its eyes at the question few female musicians relish being asked: “How does it feel to be a woman in music”? Channelling both Joni Mitchell and her millennial heir, Laura Marling, Man from the Magazine rails against unimaginative interviewers and condescending guitar shop assistants, with Danielle taking ownership of “being a cunt”.
Where WIMPIII’s songs don’t cleave as closely to any of the album’s declared narratives, there is still much of interest going on. The louche funk skit 3AM provides light relief by parodying late-night booty calls. Album opener Los Angeles has an unexpected Caribbean lilt, with Danielle questioning her love for her home town. Stranger still, Up from a Dream galumphs like glam rock, but some hyper-processed machine variant, strafed by low-flying effects.
A handful of songs might have originated from any previous Haim era, but even these seem to bite and wallow harder than usual. The Steps – possibly the most conventional-sounding song here – may sound pretty, but Danielle is gnashing her teeth in frustration. “And every day I wake up and I make money for myself/ And though we share a bed, you know that I don’t need your help/ Do you understand?/ You don’t understand me, baby”. In the video, she clambers behind a drum kit in her pants and vest and lets rip.