Heart – Fanatic – (Sony / Legacy) review
First, a career-spanning box set, then a revealing memoir, and now, one of their finest albums of their entire career – it’s been a banner year for Heart.
Most artists mellow as they get older. The previously-vitriolic Bob Dylan now jokes with his audience, while the once-mighty Robert Plant is now singing quiet folk music. Well, apparently Heart didn’t get the memo – their new album, Fanatic, contains some of the most blistering hard rock that the band has ever laid down. Their 14th studio album caps off a flurry of activity from the group that began earlier in the year with the release of Strange Euphoria, the band’s first-ever multi-disc retrospective. Then, just a few weeks ago, Ann & Nancy Wilson collaborated on Kicking and Dreaming, a revealing memoir. Now comes Fanatic, showing that these girls aren’t slowing down one bit – in fact, they’re riding an unprecedented creative streak.
It’s obvious that the several years of looking back while writing their memoir has had a profound effect on their current music. “Rock Deep (Vancouver)” goes back to where it all began – Ann left her Seattle home for the Canadian unknown to live with her “Magic Man,” Michael Fisher, who helped steer those critical first few years of Heart’s existence. “Dear Old America” is written from the perspective of their father, who was an officer in the Marine Corps, which has a surprising tempo change in the middle.
And yet, while their previous album, 2010‘s excellent Red Velvet Car, showed that Heart could still conjure up their classic Seventies’ sound, Fanatic is all about the here and now. The distorted guitars and loud-as-hell drums that usher in the title track are jarring at first. But, “Fanatic” is a statement of purpose, as Ann sings “I can’t stop talking / I can’t stop dreaming.” Yet, there’s still that intangible magic in her voice that propelled hits like “Crazy on You” so long ago. In other words, Ann’s still got it.
In their book, we learned that the Wilsons had to sometimes compromise their vision, especially during the hit-rampant, drug-fueled mid-Eighties, where they were having success, but most of their hits were written by outside songwriters. In contrast, Fanatic feels like it’s coming directly from them, unbridled and unfiltered – every song was written by Ann, Nancy, and producer Ben Mink. They’re also playing old instruments again – Ann on flute and Nancy on mandolin – signatures of their early days. And, this is the second album with the same band – Nancy & Ben Mink on guitars, Ric Markmann on bass, and Ben Smith on drums – adding to the cohesive sound of the record.
Their box set revealed sides of their music heretofore not shown on any album – humorous tracks, recalling their father’s love of Spike Jones; blues numbers, harkening back to early influences; and electronic dance numbers, showing that Ann & Nancy were more than simply hard rockers. Fanatic takes a cue from that collection, stretching at the confines of what we think we know about Heart. Nowhere is this more evident than in the album’s best track, “A Million Miles,” which opens with an electronic-echoed guitar and techno beat, before giving way to thunderous drums and raw guitar. But, just when you think you’ve figured it out, the chorus ends and in comes a cascading mandolin played over the thumping rhythm – hillbilly techno hard rock on a Heart record!
Ann’s voice is still a force of nature. For evidence, just put on the Middle Eastern-tinged “Mashallah!” where she sounds like a possessed banshee. There are times when age plays to her advantage – as on the tongue-in-cheek “Skin & Bones.” There’s a rasp to her voice which actually adds color to the lyrics of a autumn/spring relationship, played over a blues stomping beat (according to the liner notes, she sang the snippet at the beginning into her Iphone).
The duo are joined by fellow Vancouver resident Sarah McLachlan, who adds background vocals to the acoustic “Walkin’ Good,” which bears resemblance to Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” “59 Crunch,” which sounds like something U2 would come up with (perhaps “Vertigo”?), gives Ann & Nancy a chance to trade off lead vocals, something they haven’t done in a long time. The album closes with “Corduroy Road” – the heavy strings, Middle Eastern chord progression and plodding beat recall Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” which is somewhat ironic. The band that was once mocked as “Little Led Zeppelin” can do that band better than it’s lead singer now.
Fanatic contains ten songs, the perfect length really – not too long, and begging for another listen. It isn’t a perfect album, the edges are purposely left rough, making it much more honest. And, for a band with so many twists and turns in the career, they’re finally making music on their own terms again. Fanatic is a bold new album from a band that shows no signs of slowing down. –Tony Peters