REVIEW: Bella Donna

(Photo: Neal Preston)

Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates and Stevie Nicks’ Bella Donna are both such long-awaited albums that you could all but hear the amens when they arrived in the stores.

It has been nearly two years since the release of Jones’ enchanting debut LP, which rode the success of “Chuck E.’s in Love” into the Top 10 and earned the singer a Grammy as the year’s best new artist.

It has been even longer since Nicks’ ethereal “Rhiannon” in 1976 helped make Fleetwood Mac one of the most commercially successful bands in recording history–a contribution that suggested Nicks would eventually attempt a solo album.

Now that the wait for the albums is over, the questions are: Does Jones live up to expectations? Will Nicks do OK on her own? The answers depend on whether you’re more interested in chart performance or music. Bella Donna (Modern Records) is a careful, respectable work that will chalk up sales, but it mostly repeats what we already know about Nicks’ music from her recordings with Fleetwood Mac. The album’s high points are the few times she steps into new territory.

[Editor’s note: The rest of the Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates album review has been omitted from this article.]

The strange thing about Stevie Nicks’ Bella Donna is that someone who presumably has been looking forward for years to recording away from the shadow of one band steps in the LP’s key track into the shadow of another: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Not only did Petty write and co-produce “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” but he also sings on it with nicks, and the Heartbreakers bands plays on the track. The arrangement–from Benmont Tench’s sinuous keyboard touches to Michael Campbell’s cymbal-like guitar licks– summarizes the feel of Petty’s moody, midtempo rockers so fully that it’s almost a caricature.

Still, the Nicks-Petty teaming is a classic pairing of two of rock’s heart-throbs and the single will be smash, adding even more to the audience for this album. The problem aesthetically is the song adds nothing to Nicks’ musical identity. Unfortunately, the same things can be said about the rest of the LP.

That’s not going to necessarily be a disappointment for hard-core Nicks fans, but I’ve always felt quivering, trance-like vocals are most effective in small doses.

One of Fleetwood Mac’s strengths is the flexibility that results from three singer-songwriters in the band. Just when Nicks’ initially seductive approach wears thin, the group shifts to one of the velvety Christine McVie ballads or rollicking Lindsey Buckingham numbers.

Using guitarist Waddy Wachtel and other musicians who have worked with Linda Ronstadt, producer Jimmy Iovine gives Nicks’ music a harder edge than it usually receives on the Mac recordings. Still, most of the songs on Bella Donna are built around the same swirling rhythms and frequent mystical allusions of such familiar Nicks tunes as “Sisters of the Moon,” “Rhiannon,” and “Dreams.”

Some of the songs–notably the upbeat “Think About It”–work especially well. Others, however, are ponderous. Among them: the title track, which is yet another reflection on pop stardom (“No speed limit…this is the fast lane”), and “Edge of Seventeen,” an over-wrought romantic flashback.

The high points in the album are the times she steps farthest form the Mac mold. Besides the Petty track, there’s “After the Glitter Fades,” a marvelous country ballad, and “Leather and Lace,” a folkish song with much of the delicate emotion of Tim Hardin’s best tunes. On both numbers, Nicks, who is joined on “Leather and Lace” by Eagles’ Don Henley, seems far more approachable and genuine vocally.

“After the Glitter Fades” is such an evocative account of loneliness amid the glamour of Hollywood rock ‘n’ roll that it’s surprising to note on the album’s lyric sheet that it was written before Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac and became a star herself. Sample lyric: “The dreams keep coming when you forget to feel.”

If Nicks could have broken awa a few more times from the relatively conversative shackles of her Fleetwood Mac image, Bella Donna would have been a lot easier to toast as it goes up the sales chart.

Robert Hilburn / Los Angeles Times / August 2, 1981

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