Heart’s strengths lie in ’70s-style classic rock. It’s where they excel, mining acoustic folk and hard rock — light and shade — à la Led Zeppelin, one of their prime influences. Sure, their biggest sales came in the mid to late ’80s when they were remade in spandex and big hair as a slick MTV-friendly band depending on outside hit-factory songwriters. But that era of their music hasn’t dated particularly well, and even leaders Ann & Nancy Wilson eventually tired of the artifice of that period, with Heart taking a 10-year hiatus from the studio after 1993’s Desire Walks On.
That’s why it’s especially unusual that the Wilson sisters have chosen to return to the ’80s for their latest album, Beautiful Broken. Only, they’ve thrown an interesting curveball, re-recording a selection of tracks from what was a relatively fallow period for them earlier in the decade. The trilogy of albums they issued then — from the moderately successful, if uneven, Bebe Le Strange (1980), through to the diminishing returns of Private Audition (1982) and Passionworks (1983) — found them in a strange interzone. Their style of music had been supplanted by new wave and the after effects of punk and disco and they hadn’t found their second wind yet. They’d lost their footing both professionally and personally. As Ann Wilson said recently in Rolling Stone, “For me, that whole Private Audition / Passionworks era was when I was at my most lost. In terms of substances and alcohol, stuff like that, I don’t feel I was able to focus that well. I was OK live, but I couldn’t focus enough to go into the studio and make it work. And so some of those songs, they were good songs, but they got lost.”
They’ve gone back and cherry picked two songs from each of those three albums, plus the title track (originally a bonus cut on 2012’s Fanatic), and added three new songs to keep it current and not a total exercise in nostalgia. As a cohesive work, the songs all work surprisingly well together, with the possible exception of the sequencing of lullaby-esque ballad “Two” immediately following the pummeling “Beautiful Broken”.
That title song is the single, and the most adventurous track due to the involvement of Metallica’s James Hetfield. Adventurous doesn’t always mean it works, though, and the song doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be: edgy metal or glossy arena rock. Better rockers are the new “Heaven”, a moody desert-psych number which vaguely echoes Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”, and the new version of “Down On Me”, which recalls the band’s glory days and would have fit easily on any of their strongest ’70s albums.
“Sweet Darlin’”, though, is the true lost Heart track from this collection that missed its chance first time around. An Ann Wilson original, it has the melody and feel of a pop standard, with tasteful orchestra and one of her best vocal performances, emotive but not overblown.
New life is breathed into other tracks with inventive additions, such as a backwards guitar solo on “Johnny Moon” and a short spoken word section on “One Word”. New life is also given to these tracks through what’s taken away. On “Johnny Moon”, gone is the distracting and dated artificial drum sound of the 1983 original. “One Word” was a standout track on Private Audition, but got weighed down under a clumsy rock arrangement with too much going on. Here it’s been cleaned up and simplified, revealing the calm beauty beneath.
In the end, the title of the album can be interpreted multiple ways. There’s face-value, with the subject of the title song being a beautiful but self-destructive woman. One could also say these resurrected songs were broken in the early ’80s, but still had beauty. Taking it a little further, one could say the songs are beautiful when they’re broken down with the now dated production removed, that there’s untapped beauty in them when they’re broken out of their 1980s prisons. However you look at it, though, this is a unique and rewarding addition to the Heart catalog.