The Wilson sisters' new travelogue proves they have a lot left in the tank... and a lot to teach other bands.
When I was kvelling over Heart's career-defining box set Strange Euphoria, I was thrilled to find out that Heart was releasing a new album this year -- but I was also a little nervous that it might not live up to what they'd been doing lately. I loved Jupiter's Darling, but I loved Red Velvet Car a little less, and it seemed another record coming so soon had the potential for a rush-job drop-off.
But you shouldn't EVER doubt Heart. Ann and Nancy Wilson have been proving critics and doubters (and even fans like me) wrong for decades... and Fanatic proves that they're going to keep doing just that. They avoid any kind of softness or complacency by pulling a classic move: hitting the road.
The second song here, "Dear Old America", sets the stage both musically and conceptually. It may have started as a meditation about the Wilson's father returning from World War II, all stompy swagger and grandiose sentiments: "When I get home I'm gonna own this town / Shine that medal and wear that crown / Fall on my knees and kiss the ground." But it soon gets more complicated and ambiguous than that, pulling back to reveal a double-time boogie (according to the notes, it was originally the result of a programming error, which is incredibly awesome and apropos) and some different takes on the original braggadocio: "When I get home I'm gonna shove my doubts / Dream my dreams and shut my mouth / Nobody knows what this is all about." Anyone who ever wants to write lyrics, or study how to incorporate irony into a rock song -- the sweepy weepy Hollywood orchestra that keeps butting in -- needs to visit this over and over again.
Having hinted at their love/hate relationship with their home country, Ann and Nancy keep moving around; other songs here keep up the travel theme. "Pennsylvania" is a ballad mourning a young man who may or may not be the entire Keystone State. "Rock Deep (Vancouver)" is a sweet celebration of the Canadian city that took them in and nurtured them early on; an extra level of wonder is added when one remembers that Heart started in Vancouver because several guys in the group were trying to avoid the Vietnam draft.
It's kind of hard to figure out exactly where closing track "Corduroy Road" is set, with its haunting references to someone named Zingara and its exotic string arrangement. But on this track, and on others here, the themes are all about travel and relocation. "Walkin' Good" sees Nancy celebrating the virtues of "a brand new neighborhood". "Mashallah!" seems to be an Arabic love song, portraying with great sensitivity this culture that so many people regard as scary and foreign. And on "A Million Miles" Ann wails about being that far away from her home and farther, which pretty clearly fixes them as aliens just visiting Dear Old America in the first place.
The production and the ideas here are definitely aided by the involvement of Ben Mink, a Canadian hero for me since his work with k.d. lang in the 1980s. He makes things crack when they need to crack, he helps the epic feel truly epic; but he does this while really just facilitating the peculiar and particular visions of Ann and Nancy Wilson. A brilliant producer with no ego whatsoever -- what a concept.
This sonic landscape lets Heart roar like they haven't for a long time. The title song comes roaring out of the gate with a nasty-ass riff and lets Ann unleash a snarl and a hunger that a lot of today's groups don't even try to approach. Mink helps this track and "Skin and Bones" move right along, adding the subtlest of electronic beats underneath their bluesy exteriors. But when it's time to rock the hell out, like on the astounding "59 Crunch", he just lets the guitars ring and encourages Ann and Nancy to trade off evocative and mysterious lyrics like "Eight of four / One of five / Eat it raw / Now eat it alive." (Whoa.)
Ten tracks, all of which fit together in a logical way and with an almost-identifiable theme, over in 40 minutes but continuing to echo long afterwards, loud and rowdy but also soft and personal -- Fanatic here reclaims folk music from the Mumblefords, teaches all rock bands how to actually rock, and continues Heart's legacy of being, quite frankly, one of the best bands we have ever had.