Diversity marks Stevie Nicks’ solo

(Chris Walter / Getty Images)

Stevie Nicks Bella Donna (1981)

Fleetwood Mac singer borrows some hard-edged help from Petty.

Pop Album Reviews:
STEVIE NICKS, Bella Donna, Modern Records. MR38-139.

What’s particularly attractive about Stevie Nicks’ solo plunge is the musical and stylistic diversity she has layered Bella Donna with. In the past, Nicks has cloaked herself exclusively in the simplistic sort of “June/moon/spoon” romanticized mysticism one might expect from someone who publishes her songs under the trade name of “Welsh Witch” music.

The first time one heard “Rhiannon” in 1976, it was an interesting touch. But after creamy cuts like “Sisters of The Moon” and “Gold Dust Woman,” it was easy to grow tired of hearing Nicks cheapen D.H. Lawrence to a sulky pop beat.

Here she comes off as a more accomplished, wide-ranging writer and singer. Much of the improvement comes from her hooking up with the rock-oriented producer/engineer team of Jimmy lovine and Shelly Yakus. In addition, Tom Petty and his band have provided the instrumentation and the result is a harder, punchier sound than the gooey pudding whipped up on the past couple Fleetwood Mac LPs.

The centerpiece cut, “Edge of Seventeen,” might have been an effort to listen to on Rumours or Tusk, but here all the lines like “just like the white winged dove” and “but the sea changes colours” (note the affected spelling of that last word — Welsh witch indeed!) are buoyed up by the punchy arrangements.

The Petty connection is interesting and made slightly more intriguing by the fact that Nicks seems to have unintentionally one-upped Petty. She sang on the relatively weak “Insider” that showed up on his recent Hard Promises LP and in return got one of the better new Petty songs, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” The passion of the piece suits Nicks well, and it’s a bit of a relief to hear her sing it in her husky voice rather than have to listen to the whiny version Petty might have turned out.

Besides Petty and the Heartbreakers, Nicks gets good use out of other familiar names. Eagle Don Henley adds some nice vocals to a pretty version of Waylon Jennings’ and Jessie Colter’s “Leather and Lace” while another Eagle, Don Felder, joins Nicks and Henley on the final piece on the record, the 1975 Nicks composition “The Highwayman.” E Street pianist Roy Bittan plays on “Edge of Seventeen,” “After the Glitter Fades” and “Leather and Lace,” and he also gets a writing credit for some very distinctive opening chords added to “Think about It.”

Past all the outside input, however, Bella Donna is Stevie Nicks’ record and it’s surprising how attractive she and it are. In addition to the previously mentioned doubts, it’s an acknowledged fact that Nicks’ voice is a delicate instrument that is beginning to fail. Overlooking the benefits of pacing one’s self in the studio (as opposed to the nightly strain of concerts), Nicks is in very full voice here. She belts out the country-style “After the Glitter Fades” without hesitation and only on “Kind of Woman” does her voice start to crack or fade.

Unlike Rickie Lee Jones, another singer who steeps herself in romanticism on a new solo album, Nicks is not as demanding or penetrating a writer. On the other hand, Nicks hasn’t fallen into the trap of self-absorption that alienates the listener from Jones’ Pirates — Nicks the writer is easily understood and enjoyed. The title track is slightly obscured by the foggy passions that are Nicks’ preoccupation, but other numbers like “How Still My Love” and “Outside the Rain” are effective pieces of mood and affection.

The only letdown in Bella Donna stems from this accessibility. In truth, these generally appealing songs don’t have a lot of impact when added up as an album. Nicks is not a Chrissie Hynde or even a Pat Benatar when it comes to generating vocal excitement — obviously, she’s not a fullblown rocker like those two, yet as a stylist she doesn’t quite generate the energy that other stylists like Linda Ronstadt or Joan Armatrading can turn out. There are points during some of the cuts, like “The Highwayman” or “Kind of Woman,” that are emotionally flat and unaffecting.

Still, one has to give Nicks credit for shaping a much fuller and better LP than her work with Fleetwood Mac might have indicated she was capable of. Her name alone and the tie-in with Petty virtually assure Bella Donna sales. It’s nice that there are actually some songs here worthy of that status.

C.P. Smith / Santa Ana Orange County Register / August 9, 1981
(This article was transcribed by Stevie Nicks Info)

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