Sunday, 15 March 2020

Bella Donna - Stevie Nicks

Provenance: Last Sunday (8 March 2020) was International Women's Day - and with Sundays being the day of the week I generally reserve to update this blog, it would've been fitting to have written about a female artist. Believe me, I am acutely aware how much this blog skews towards the XY chromosomal combination.

However, I was enjoying a long weekend in Poland at the time, so have had to defer this review. Please, feel free to interpret this review as metonymical of my entire approach to IWD2020 - late, half-assed and woefully insufficient.

Anyway, I bought Bella Donna because I realise it contained the two Stevie Nicks solo songs I was familiar with (I like both), plus the album art is top notch. I don't know what the fuck that sad thing in the bottom left-hand corner is, but it wouldn't be out of place in an abode with a 'live, laugh, love' wall sticker. Also, I had just assumed that Nicks was riffing on a witchy vibe by holding a snowy owl, or maybe a dove, given the lyrics to 'Edge of Seventeen'; I'd never really looked too closely, and I register a mild jolt of glee and surprise every time I squint at the cockatoo perched on her hand.

Review: My version of Bella Donna is a three-CD set, containing the original album on one disc, a whole mess of bonus tracks on a second, and a third containing a 1981 live show. For the purpose of this review I'll only be looking at Bella Donna itself, but the live set is rather wunderbar, and the extras include Nicks' contribution to bonkers Canadian animated feature Heavy Metal. To those of you who are not part of the cognoscenti where Heavy Metal is concerned, it's a sci-fi anthology film featuring music by Blue Oyster Cult, Devo, Donald Fagen and Sammy Hagar (amongst a raft of others), plus vocal performances by Harold Ramis and Jim's dad from the American Pie franchise. Go see it now if you've yet to do so.

So, to Bella Donna - which sounds pretty much exactly how you imagine a 1981 solo release by Stevie Nicks should sound. By which, I mean that it's sumptuously produced, tastefully arranged (ahh, is that a hint of 'congas in the night' I hear?) and leaning heavily on the most successful period of her career to date, the soft-rock behemoth that was late-1970s Fleetwood Mac. The title track itself has it all - the push-pull dynamics, woozy lead guitar and Nicks' oddly bleating vocals gliding atop the quiet storm. Congas are present. It should be dreck, but it's beguiling really, lulling the listener into a kind of drowsy acquiescence.

It's curious to hear the shift that occurs on track three, 'Stop Draggin' My Heart Around', Nicks' collaboration with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, because we're suddenly snapped out of the soporific twilight conjured up early doors. It's a stretch to say that Petty and chums inject any sense of punky urgency - this is the Heartbreakers cruising at low altitude - but there's definitely a little more spit 'n' grit present. It also works splendidly, Nicks' gossamer (took me six paragraphs to use this word, gimme some credit) presence butting up against Petty's adenoidal wail agreeably.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement of Bella Donna is that it's entirely self-contained, its own universe of angst, loss, regret and heartache. Even when Petty and, later on, Don Henley get to share the spotlight it's always as guests in Nicks' world of pristine high drama. The only real misstep on the album, 'After the Glitter Fades', still inhabits this darkling soft-goth realm despite being a hokey cocaine-cowboy crack at country. No matter though, because straight afterwards comes the monumental 'Edge of Seventeen'.

For the record, 'Edge of Seventeen' is a song I can listen to again and again. It's pretty much perfect, right? From the juddering guitar riff to Nicks' tough, slightly strained vocal it sounds weird and arresting from the get-go; and the layered voices swooping in from all angles give proceedings a hint of hysteria, as if 'Edge of Seventeen' is about to break apart under the weight of its own foreboding and magnificence. All of this is underscored by an almost unbearable tension - the needle-point rat-a-tat guitar merciless, without any kind of drum break to provide a comfortable groove until it feels almost too late.

It's with absolutely no sense of denigration that I consider Bella Donna to be the stylistic companion piece to Christopher Cross' debut, seeing as I view that doozy as a yacht rock masterpiece. However, whilst Cross works with the pastel tones of a Malibu sunset, Nicks' post-meridian music is redolent of flickering candelabras and pregnant thunderheads. Interestingly, it's when the blokes get in on the act that Bella Donna sounds most earthbound, and Henley's otherwise likeably vulnerable crooning on 'Leather and Lace' is a little thumping compared to Nicks' glabrous keening. I haven't even found time or space to give tracks like 'Kind of Woman', 'Think About It' or 'How Still My Love' their due, each a little sparkling mote of glitter.

Bella Donna is a triumph, a swirling ocean of yearning and romance. Why are we listening to tinny, minor-key sadsack robo-pop when this exists, I wonder?

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