Monday, December 21st, 2020

HAIM – The Steps

Readers’ Week begins with Ayub’s suggestion that we return to some old faves…


[Video]
[7.11]

Oliver Maier: “The Steps” is fitting as a song title for lyricists as methodical as the Haim sisters. Events in their songs occur in increments; you can envision a polaroid immortalising every gesture. The snag here is that the steps Danielle describe seem to unfold like an Escher staircase, leading nowhere but back to the beginning, perpetual movement with no progress; ivy growing sideways. The guitar riff is charged with foot-on-the-gas abandon but it always circles back to the same key note in the end. Money piles up and disappears. You’re talking but a conversation isn’t happening. One can hear “The Wire” in the post-chorus tire-squeal guitars, another song from what feels like a lifetime ago about how words fail us, over and over and over. The conclusion reached here is the same somehow. “I know that you’re gonna be okay anyway” isn’t far in meaning from “If you go left and I go right/Hey, maybe that’s just life sometimes.” What makes “The Steps” good on first listen is that it’s a total barnburner. What makes it great on the second is the hook, Joni’s Cheshire Cat grin lurking behind the octave-hurdling leap on “You don’t understand me, baby.” And then after enough listens, what makes it brilliant is simply that it is unfaltering. Danielle’s eyes are fixed on the horizon, even if from behind a windowpane. We go through the motions because we hope that one day we won’t have to. The heroics of the everyday. Step by step.
[10]

Kayla Beardslee: This isn’t my favorite song from Women in Music Pt. III, but it is the one that grew on me the most. There’s something so cathartic about the way Danielle Haim pounds the drums and yells “Every time I think that I’ve been taking the steps/You end up mad at me for making a mess/I can’t understand why/You don’t understand me!” The energy of the guitar riff combines with the sharp, steely edge of the mixing to create a song polished to imperfection. Just like real relationships, the important question isn’t whether flaws exist — it’s whether they’re the kind of flaws that make perfection look foolish by comparison.
[8]

Ian Mathers: No matter how long, happy, and comfortable your relationship is, no matter how well you normally communicate and how heard and understood you generally feel by the other person, we all have moments (hours, days, hopefully not longer than that) where you just need to take all the energy conveyed by Danielle Haim’s wail of “don’t you understand?/you don’t understand me!” and throw it directly at the other person’s face. And as with so many other things in (cisgender, heterosexual) relationships, it’s not exactly a level playing field, which is to say my first listen to “The Steps” (in addition to just enjoying the kinetic jolt of the song) as a man who tries his best not to just meet the bare minimum requirements for not being a shitty person in a marriage, I certainly felt the snap of productive shame. Yeah, it is easy even when you love and respect someone to occasionally forget they don’t, in fact, need your help all the time, and that sometimes when either of you thinks you’re doing everything right the other just picks the wrong time to say something shitty instead. Despite that bridge (which I totally get might lead one to thinking this is a song about relationships that ultimately aren’t worth it), I keep hearing “The Steps” as a song about the fact that even good relationships take work, and the work never ends, not as long as you’re fallible and you still want to do right by your partner.
[10]

John S. Quinn-Puerta: There is something in the way the Haim sisters sing “you don’t understand me, baby” that speaks to my innermost being. The fuzziness of the vocals and guitar works in perfect conjunction with the lyrics to drive home the missed (or ignored) signals. The tone of Este Haim’s bass leading into the bridge could not be better suited to this purpose, easing you back into the conflict. 
[8]

Rachel Saywitz: I tend to usually listen to HAIM for the ~vibes~ but Women in Music Pt III has been kicking me in the feelings department much more than usual. “The Steps” is a rollicking adventure through a failing relationship, with a happy-go-lucky cadence and a savage retort to a party who just doesn’t understand. HAIM has always been known to write a good, solid pop hook, but “The Steps” takes the band’s melodic ease deeper into murky emotional undertones. But as Danielle wistfully sighs in the song’s bridge, “maybe that’s just life sometimes.” 
[8]

Michael Hong: “The Steps” cuts the messiness of the acoustic guitar and snare drums with its great pop instincts: its glimmering keys that sound like spring, the sticky guitar lines, and Danielle Haim, exasperated but not exhausted. It’s a slap to the face, a wake-up call rather than a split. When Danielle sings “you don’t understand me,” that’s a demand for your attention in the middle of a fight, performed with the intensity of someone who still cares rather than someone who’s given up.
[9]

Al Varela: The word that came to mind when listening to “The Steps” was “dusty.” Maybe that’s because of the drum texture, but something about this song felt impure and messy, which in a way added to its appeal. HAIM desperately plea to their lover to put the same effort into their relationship that they do, but every step HAIM takes is another step that their partner is left behind. There’s clearly no saving this relationship, but HAIM wants to make it work anyway. So their relationship is left to gather dust and never progress unless someone is willing to leave it behind. But then again, maybe it just means they’ll find their footing again later on. That their partner will find the dust-gathering relationship and reopen it, find the spark that made it so special in the first place.
[8]

Vikram Joseph: It’s hard to reckon with the fact that “The Steps” came out in 2020, because this is just one of those songs which sounds like a classic pop song from the very first time you lay ears upon it. That wailing guitar is so good — somehow both a massive pop hook and also a Jay Bennett riff that got lost during the recording of Summerteeth and turned up 21 years later, raised by a benevolent commune of art students and wearing double-denim. It’s mad that the HAIM sisters decided not to do any synchronised walking in the video, because none of their songs have felt as perfect for their trademark routine as this.
[8]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: In the middle stretches of the year I listened to HAIM (and more specifically “The Steps”) almost as a crutch, looping this song til the point of nausea. Coming back to it now, I’m not sure how I listened to this nine times on March 24th. Shorn of the strange, still mood of those months, “The Steps” seems intentionally designed to irritate — Alana’s guitar riff scratching at the track like she’s trying to show off at the Sherman Oaks Guitar Center, Danielle’s lyric leaning hard on faux-profound metaphors in the classic rock style, the endlessly cheery acoustic guitar part. Yet even as I recognize its shortcomings I am drawn back to “The Steps,” its insidious jangle-pop logic worming its way back into my head with every note. It teeters on the edge of being too on the nose (it slips briefly into that category with the whole going left/right bit) but in Danielle Haim’s vocal performance, yearning and world-weary all at once, it manages to win out.
[7]

Will Adams: For all the praise heaped for how “adventurous” Women In Music Pt. III was, the chosen singles largely played it safe. “I Know Alone” is the exception, but both “The Steps” and “Don’t Wanna” find the Haim sisters in cruise control. As usual, their hooks — Danielle’s leap to head voice on “you don’t under-STAND me!” in particular — and riffs are sharp and measured, but they’ve captured the jolt of recognizing a failing relationship better years ago. Even the production feels labored; the distortion weighs everything, like the project file was left out in the sun too long. “The Steps” is fine as rock radio fodder, but disappointing considering the source.
[5]

Katherine St Asaph: What is going on with the production here? The first few bars sound like they’re about turn into “Rebel Girl,” the next few like they’re going to turn into some muted indie-folk. Instead there’s MOR AOR with vocal production that’s alternatively overblown and muffled — the high note on understand sounds like it was sung from five buildings away — with scant harmony.
[3]

Harlan Talib Ockey: Have we figured out the line between “dated” and “retro” yet? Maybe it’s the ability to innovate within an older framework; the other acoustic-based songs on HAIM’s record are also clearly Influenced By Somebody, but it’s unlikely Fleetwood Mac would’ve come up with the stuttering hand drums and soundscapes in “Leaning On You,” for example. Maybe it’s the production’s expansiveness and accuracy; we might prefer hearing antiquated sounds represented by modern technology when we can get it. Or maybe it’s just our own distance from the era in question. “The Steps” seems to have squarely hit the 2000s-Carrie-Underwood bullseye, for some reason, with no obvious gestures to imply that the Haim sisters have thought about subverting or updating that paradigm. The only other notable inspiration is audible in the guitars, which I assume are going for the Eagles — hardly foreign to amped-up country, for what it’s worth — but they’re so thinly recorded and hyper-compressed it’s tough to assess their musical promise. Danielle Haim’s voice is likewise flattened by the unyielding, outdated production, giving me awful flashbacks to Taylor Swift circa “Should’ve Said No”. Now, I’m entirely willing to concede that this wasn’t a subgenre I loved, and it’s probably far easier to see their ’70s and ’90s touches as cooler in hindsight, but ultimately it’s the total lack of progressive thinking and creativity that makes this truly disappointing. Man, imagine this being your first impression of what HAIM are capable of.
[3]

Samson Savill de Jong: Confession: I haven’t actually ever listened to a HAIM song before this one. Turns out they’re pretty good, who knew. This song’s a nice mix of fun while having a bit of a “fuck you” edge. I’m not totally in love with it, I think because it feels a little restrained. Especially at the end, it starts building, and I really want the lead guitar to go on an aggressive tear that raises the energy — think of how they’re playing the drum in the video, except you can actually hear it in the song — which it never really does. This makes the song feel a little safe, like there’s more room for them to go into but they don’t feel like doing it, but it’s a solid tune regardless.
[7]

Aaron Bergstrom: Darkness on the Edge of Town, if the town in question was Indio, California. After two albums spent perfecting a breezy, carefree sound and corresponding aesthetic, Women in Music Pt. III finds the Haim sisters taking a few welcome risks and exploring darker themes. “The Steps” follows the structure of a classic HAIM song, kicking off with crisp drums and a bright lead guitar line, but beyond that the textures are all different now: fuzzed out, overdriven guitars cast shadows, dissolving echoes create distance, and reverberating vocals reflect a tinge of entropy. Let’s not go overboard, though: it’s not exactly Metal Machine Music. The Danielle/Ariel/Rostam triumvirate hasn’t lost its hit-making chops, and a lead single this catchy wouldn’t read as a sea change coming from anyone else. Coming from HAIM, however, it’s a bold declaration that they have ambitions beyond defending their title as Coolest Girls At The Festival.
[9]

Andrew Karpan: It had struck me that this was the purest expression of the idea of HAIM, sunglasses-wearing seen-it-alls strutting straight out of the pages of Play It as It Lays or what have you. For sure, the guitar line and the title feel like retreads of “The Wire,” a single that was also my personal favorite on their debut, among the few records that have come to really epitomize the vinyl section of an Urban Outfitters. But maybe this is what it means to be in the land of dreams, to be constantly refining the same thing, shining it over and over again.
[5]

Alfred Soto: A great-grandson of the “Day Tripper” riff animates one of the few merely solid songs on Haim’s third album: more vignettes about being connected, modestly comfortable, and not quite young in the eternal sunshine of California. Perhaps too comfortable if not complacent.
[6]

Scott Mildenhall: If HAIM were a crisp flavour, they’d be ready salted. Much like a large bag of those, “The Steps” is good, but too plain to sustain interest throughout. You only have to look across at cheese and onion to find that the conventional can still kick enough to keep going, but instead it comes down to the continual dice-roll of whether every packet and every bite will be NaCl or “N/A — flavouring didn’t stick.” “The Steps” is no unseasoned Salt & Shake — the chorus, or at least its beginning, exerts some of the band’s melodic magnetism — but is still a prime example of a variety that is dependable at best.
[6]

Austin Nguyen: Beneath all that bottled-up frustration — the messy, in-your-face twang; drum fills that pound on the bedroom door, daring to kick it down — a guitar strums with simple determination, still heard despite being more understated, as steady as HAIM’s sense of self. When the piano comes in, you can almost imagine them under the sheets, content with nothing but the sunlight beside them: “If you go left, and I go right/Hey, baby, that’s just life sometimes.” It’s on the opposite end of where “If I Could Change Your Mind” was — raucous instead of restrained, brash against instead of beholden to love, a power move instead of a plea — as if to say: Forget your mind. This is mine.
[8]

Reader average: [8.33] (3 votes)

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2 Responses to “HAIM – The Steps”

  1. Didn’t get to blurb this b/c I have no sense of time but would’ve easily been at least an 8 from me — love the variety of opinions here :)

  2. ian’s blurb here is really excellent.

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