Album Assignments: The Wild Heart

Stevie Nicks made a huge splash as a solo artist at the beginning of the 1980s. For her 1981 solo debut Bella Donna she enlisted the aid of producer Jimmy Iovine, because when asked who she wanted to produce the album, she said, “I want whoever produces Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. If I can’t be in The Heartbreakers, at least I can get Tom’s producer so I can make the girl version of what I love about Tom Petty.”

Iovine brought a rock and roll sensibility quite different from that of Lindsey Buckingham, up to that point the only other producer Nicks had worked with on a full album. Not only that, he brought The Heartbreakers along with him, and even convinced Petty himself to duet with Nicks a track he had written, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Iovine also enlisted stellar musicians like Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel, Davey Johnstone (longtime guitarist for Elton John), and the always-amazing Roy Bittan. Stevie herself brought in Don Henley for another duet triumph, “Leather And Lace.” The album went platinum in 3 months, and hit number one on the Billboard album charts.

Cut to 1983. Fleetwood Mac had released Mirage, giving Nicks another Top 20 hit with “Gypsy” but further pulling her between her solo career and her longtime band. The romantic relationship she’d had with Iovine was crumbling. And heartbreakingly, devastatingly, her childhood friend Robin Anderson had died of leukemia. Nicks always had a flair for drama, but at this time her life was providing all the triumph and tragedy of a gothic novel.

Album cover for The Wild Heart

So she did what she’d become so skilled at doing. She poured all of the emotion into songs, re-enlisting Iovine and most of the Bella Donna players (plus luminaries like Sandy Stewart, Steve Lukather, and even Mick Fleetwood himself) to craft a remarkable collection of deeply expressionist music. She channeled the gothic novel explicitly, using Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as inspiration for The Wild Heart‘s title track.

And what a title track! The six minutes and ten seconds of that song are a pinnacle of Nicks’ career, especially her solo career. It features Nicks’ signature elliptical lyrics, so obscure and so relatable at the same time, at least for anybody who’s been caught in a wild emotional whirlwind, partly of their own making. Even more than that, though, it captures the most incredible vocal on the album, one of the best of her entire career.

She starts with plain declarations — “something in my heart died last night” — with notes repeated so often it’s nearly monotone. The backup singers come in to harmonize on “that’s when I needed you, when I needed you most,” adding color. The next verse ramps up to a higher set of notes, and Nicks sings a little more urgently. Then she climbs the first big ladder, on “dare my wild heart.”

Drums take us into the chorus, and the main hook for the song, musically and conceptually: “Don’t blame it on me — blame it on my wild heart.” This line crystallizes the romantic persona she’d been crafting ever since the first notes of “Rhiannon” hit AM radio. Like Brontë’s Cathy, she’s a creature of pure passion, utterly controlled by her emotions. She creates the space for all of us to inhabit who find ourselves swept up in and dwarfed by our feelings, specifically romantic feelings. “There was a danger, and the danger was to fall in love.”

As the song progresses, she adds more and more flourish to the lines, pulls more drama from them with ecstatic chants — “not even you can tear us apart, whoa-oh!” “You don’t even know how to start, how to start, HOW TO START.” She finds her falsetto among repetitions of “on my wild heart”, then flutters into a bridge that drops some of the accompaniment away amid familiar fiery and rainy imagery. The chorus returns, with some alterations bespeaking passionate devotion — “there is a reason why even the angels don’t give it up at all.”

With the backup singers chanting “blame it on me”, Nicks loses herself in the feeling as the drums press urgently on. Lines from earlier in the song return, but this time sung with abandon, as if the images themselves are leaping out before her. She swoops all around the beat like Cathy’s frantic ghost, finally losing words altogether in a series of “oooh”s.

Then come the last thirty seconds of the song. “Blame it on my wild heart,” she repeats over and over, desperately, and then everything crescendos: “Blame it on my wild, wild, wild, WIIIIIILD HEEAAAART!” That note. She pours everything into it, all the grief, all the trauma, all the heartbreak, all the out-of-control dysfunction that was her life in 1983, and in the magical alchemy of rock and roll, changes it into a rapturous, delirious, cathartic exaltation of the powers that bind us together and to this life.

Look, I won’t do this for every song. But “Wild Heart” is a perfect example of why Stevie Nicks is my favorite artist, and has been for more than 30 years now, ever since I saw her at Red Rocks when I was 16 years old. If these album assignment essays are for anything, they’re for trying to capture the thoughts and feelings that music brings to me, and in the case of Stevie, it takes some telling.

To tell it all every time, though, would maybe be to tell too much. As she sings in “Stand Back”, “no one knows how I feel / or what I mean unless you read between my lines,” but there are so many lines and so much between them, perhaps it’s better to just focus on moments.

Nothing else on the album quite reaches the peak of that last 30 seconds of “Wild Heart”, but several pieces come really close. There are the lovely lines in the album’s closing track “Beauty and the Beast”: “I never doubted your beauty / I’ve changed”, which then repeat with Nicks stretching out the last two words to near-operatic heights. There’s the dynamite keyboard riff in “Stand Back”, played by Prince as we all found out later. There’s the joyful count-off at the beginning of “Enchanted.” There’s the infuriated opening couplet of “Nothing Ever Changes”: “If it’s me that’s driving you to this madness, there’s just one thing that I’d like to say / Would you take a look at your life and your lovers? Nothing ever changes.”

And then there’s “If Anyone Falls.” This song captivated me from the opening synth swells, which were perfectly of their time but still sound so perfect now. Nicks’ vocal against this synth line shines like chrome, and her lyrics are iconically Nicksy: “Somewhere… twilight… dreamtime… somewhere in the back of your mind.” She finds so many perfect little expressions, like “I have never known the words… but I have tried to be true.” But my favorite part of this song is the bridge: “So I’m never gonna see you / Deep inside my heart / But I see your shadow against, shadow against, shadow against the wall.” Again, it’s that repetition that sounds like it arises organically from the strength of her feelings, supported by drums pounding out the words rhythm, and a key change from the synth line that sounds like it’s buoyed upward by sheer force of emotion.

I ended up at that Red Rocks concert because a friend’s mother (who was a huge Stevie fan) convinced me that there may be something there for me. The bridge of “If Anyone Falls”, which had been all over radio a few years before, made me believe it. And I’ve gotten a lifetime of joy out of this music, a bright river I can still tap into today, just as strong as ever. Much of it came from a place of pain, but it has taken that pain and turned into spellbinding and rich exultation.

That’s more than entertainment. It’s enchantment.

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