Pop music goes by many names. Amidst your indie pop, synthpop, bedroom pop, chamber pop, K-pop, J-pop, U2’s Pop, and spin-offs of U2’s Pop, these days, American Pop with a capital “P” can be summed up in two camps.
There’s the celebrity-driven, co-write- and feature-heavy pop that dominates Top 40 stations and Spotify’s charts — you know, actual hit songs — and then your critically-acclaimed, boundary pushing fare that finds its niche on Coachella’s main stage, late-night talk shows, and year-end lists.
For the latter, these strongholds range from profitable to not-at-all-profitable, so the best way to turn alt-pop cool into a sustainable career is to, as Andrew Unterberger explained on Billboard last month, have your One Song: Lorde’s “Royals,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” Florence + the Machine‘s “Dog Days Are Over.”
Secure your crossover smash, a song that everyone knows, and springboard to a life of pop stardom untethered from trend-hopping, tacky features and capitalistic thirst.
Haim have been searching for this crossover since their 2013 debut Days Are Gone, and to this point, all that’s eluded the T-Swift-hangin’ sisters is the ever-elusive One Song.
A lack of quality isn’t to blame. Days Are Gone was a strong opening statement, a stylish hodgepodge of ‘90s R&B thump and Hanson’s fraternal harmonies (flipped female, of course) which was easy to like and near impossible to hate, especially for those who grew up listening to these sounds. For the older set, it was almost impossible to read a Days Are Gone review that didn’t mention Fleetwood Mac.
Long-awaited follow-up Something to Tell You (out today on Columbia) revisits Haim’s songcraft after four years’ development and raises them a flashier set of collaborators — BloodPop, Rostam Batmanglij, Dev Hynes, Twin Shadow‘s George Lewis and returning producer Ariel Rechtshaid — a murderer’s row of forces from this alternate universe pop realm.
“Nothing’s Wrong” pushes the Fleetwood comparison into Expert Mode, melding the urgent drive of Rumors with Tango in the Night‘s humid synth glisten; not to be lost on the present, there’s a wondrous moment where the vocals distort down the sort of cyborg croon you’d hear on a James Blake record. With call ‘n return shouts and goofy low-end strut, “Ready For You” sounds like the sisters’ necessary heat check on their mastery of the “I Want You Back”/”MMMBop” songbook (it does fine), but Haim is most spellbinding when it pushes the mood from cheeky to a few shades shy of dramatic.
Most of Something to Tell You‘s lyrics explore break-ups — especially the headspace of having had some time to reflect on them — well-suited for their slickest musical moments, where they really earn those R&B credentials. “Kept Me Crying” breaks down into harmonies and handclaps, before the refrain — “I was your lover/ I was your friend/ Now I’m only just someone you call when it’s late enough to forget” — disrobes into Vocoder.
Even stealthier, “Walking Away” entertains Haim’s Destiny’s Child fantasies and holds its own, the sisters’ vocals intertwined almost a cappella, simultaneously sensual, straight-on, and upper register. To watch them pull it off live would be damn impressive.
For all its triumphs, there’s no indication Something to Tell You holds Haim’s One Song. “Want You Back” was a sturdy lead single, but it’s so far missed the mark of, well, being named by a random person on the street if you asked them for one Haim song. Released at the start of May, its commercial peak on any Billboard chart has been a modest 13 spot on Hot Rock Songs, which blends streaming, sales and airplay data.
In terms of pure radio numbers — which still play a sizable role in breaking pop artists like Haim — the best has been No. 29 on Adult Alternative Songs — aka triple-A radio — with a campaign at adult pop radio recently underway. Under the “Royals” and “Dog Days” model, an alt-radio staple leads to Top 40 takeover, but for Haim, nothing on Something to Tell You nor its predecessor has even cleared the first hurdle.
Still Haim sounds like it could, even should be big. Reviewing the new LP this week, Stereogum‘s Tom Breihan noted how it flourishes above genre barriers by tying a bunch of genres together: “It’s summery ’70s Laurel Canyon folk-pop, but it’s also ’90s R&B and ’60s girl-group music and ’00s trying-on-clothes-in-H&M dance-pop.” In this sense, it’s “four different generations of down-the-middle radio music, all melted together into one thing that, amazingly enough, still had personality working for it.”
What Haim doesn’t entertain is present-day down-the-middle radio music, which probably exists somewhere between “Shape of You” and “Closer” — coffee shop balladry told through the language of trop-house and polite EDM drops.
And, that’s a good thing! Haim’s revivalism isn’t based on one-trick gimmicks. Rather than hammer home one era’s inescapable touchstones, they’ve realized a very crucial thing about pop music nostalgia. The biggest trends always come off cooler once they’re no longer the biggest trends.