Whenever the lead singer records an album under their name, it can be hard to distinguish the solo artist from their extant group, especially when that singer’s voice is synonymous with the band’s sound. That’s particularly true when the singer is the founder and one of the remaining members of the original band and when the singer in question is Ann Wilson. On her new solo release, Fierce Bliss, the Heart frontwoman’s voice is as muscular as ever, across seven original tracks and a handful of covers. Unfortunately, the album lacks the diversity and dynamic range Wilson brought to her previous solo outings.
Wilson first went it alone on 2007’s Hope and Glory, which featured an array of surprising guest appearances. Country singers Deana Carter and Wynonna Judd brought new colors to Wilson’s palette. Her duets with crooners k.d. lang and Rufus Wainwright demonstrated her strength as a gracious collaborator with eclectic tastes. Immortal (2018) saw her pay tribute to gone-but-not-forgotten artists, bringing her powerhouse voice to songs by David Bowie, Lesley Gore, Leonard Cohen, and others.
On Fierce Bliss, Wilson returns to the titanic rock that made Heart famous. As a result, the album bears a passing resemblance to a mid-career album by the Seattle band. Now based in Florida, Wilson recorded most of the record at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama and Nashville’s Soundstage. Nashville session players comprise the band and are rounded out with guest appearances by guitarists Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes.
The original song “Greed” leads off the album. It and “A Moment in Heaven” are heavy-handed, with beefed-up arrangements and moralistic lyrics. The latter is a catchy rocker that Wilson says is “all about the short-lived glamour and ecstasy of being successful in the rock business”. If anyone knows about the rollercoaster of fame, it’s Wilson, but the track brings nothing new to the narrative. The chorus contains the delightful eggcorn “Hollywood be thy name”, but overall the lyrics are sneering and bitter.
The first song Wilson wrote for the record was “Black Wing”, penned in the early days of the pandemic. It was inspired by the birds around St. John’s River near her home. It has more dynamic range than the other cuts, and its guitar part eschews high-wire histrionics in favor of sonic texture. The lyrics are a throwback to Led Zeppelin at their most mystical. Pretensions aside, the melodic tune stands out among the rest of the album’s run-of-the-mill rockers.
There are four covers on the album, the selection of which attests to Wilson’s diverse musical interests. A faithful rendition of Queen’s “Love of My Life” features another suitable duet partner from the country world, Vince Gill. However, Jeff Buckley’s mournful “Forget Her” becomes turgid and overblown, despite its comparatively sparse arrangement. Ironically, Buckley’s thinner voice saved the original from the same fate.
Wilson’s version of the Eurythmics’ “Missionary Man” takes all the cheek out of the original, turning a raucous romp into hard labor. Piling on a gospel choir (The Rev. Nathan Young Singers), handclaps, and an earnest guitar solo can’t save this one. “Fighten Fer Life”, another original track, is refreshing in its downtempo metallic beat, with guitar textures both swampy and urban. In the end, though, Wilson can’t seem to resist a bombastic crescendo to drive the point home.
The songs on Fierce Bliss typify the over-the-top rockers and power ballads on which Wilson built her career. With a sound as recognizable iconic as hers, it must be hard to do anything else. How do you flex new muscles when your voice is all muscle to begin with? However, Wilson showed a different side on previous solo releases, with inventive interpretations of diverse covers. It’s as if she got out from under her own shadow. Fierce Bliss has a few breakthrough moments, but overall it steps back to familiar ground: too much thunder and not enough light.