Sunday, October 9, 2016

Heart – Beautiful Broken [album review]

Released on July 8th

It’s been frustrating for quite some time to keep the faith as a Heart fan. Until Beautiful Broken, their newest release, more than 20 years had passed since their last memorable studio album, 1993’s Desire Walks On. Nearly as much time had passed since their last merely decent release, which was 1995’s The Road Home live album. Principal members Ann Wilson and her sister Nancy have had a rather sporadic output of music over the past couple of decades, consisting essentially of three Heart albums, a couple of releases from their Lovemongers side project, and a handful of solo releases from Ann. None of these measured up to the talent level of Ann, who I consider one of the best vocalists in rock (no male or female distinction needed, either).

Beautiful Broken thankfully breaks that overlong stretch of musical mediocrity. And when you consider that eight of the album’s ten tracks are reinterpretations or re-recordings of songs from the duo’s past, it boldly defies the odds in doing so. These kinds of “odds and ends” albums almost never deliver very worthwhile results (Bon Jovi’s This Left Feels Right and Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes, which I reviewed here, immediately come to mind). 

Once you get past that gawdawful album cover, Beautiful Broken rarely disappoints. Sure, it’s heavily weighted towards lighter material that mostly qualify as ballads — two thirds of it, in fact (including the slow-tempoed “Down On Me”, which straddles the fence between a ballad and a bluesy rocker). Most of this material is excellent, so it’s easy to be more forgiving of Beautiful Broken’s overall lighter tone. “Two” might be dismissed as overly sappy by some, but I found it to be an album standout. It also reminds listeners that Heart’s vocal talent runs deeper than just Ann, as Nancy takes over the lead vocals here. The romantic piano ballad (written by R&B artist Ne-Yo) does feel oddly out of place as the second song on the album, however, especially following the scorching title track that opens the album. The other track with Nancy singing lead, “One Word”, is admittedly a bit of a snoozer. “Sweet Darling” and soothing album closer “Language Of Love” are additional album highlights, featuring powerhouse vocals from Ann and some very effective string arrangements.

The rest of Beautiful Broken nicely scratches your “Barracuda itch” for fans that are more partial to Heart’s heavier side. Most notable is the album’s fiery title track, which may be the most aggressive song Heart’s ever done. Driven by Nancy’s badass guitar riff, “Beautiful Broken” also serves up a forceful vocal performance from Ann, who’s joined by Metallica’s James Hetfield. His presence bestows an extra serving of rock grit to an already-heavy piece of music that packs a lot into its concise two-and-a-half minute running time. The reworking of “Beautiful Broken” is truly transformative. It originally appeared as a bonus track on 2012’s Fanatic album, which I’d listened to a good 8-10 times. When I heard this reworked version, I immediately loved it, yet had absolutely no recollection of having heard the song before. The 2016 version is much more fully-formed, especially the bottom-end production. Heart’s strong Led Zeppelin influence is all over the acoustic-electric “I Jump”, “Heaven”, and “City’s Burning”, which also add strings and tastefully employ the Middle Eastern musical accents that Zeppelin brought to the mainstream.   

Considering the majority of Beautiful Broken is constructed of recycled material from Heart’s dodgy early 80s period, it’s significantly better than it probably has any right to be. Regardless of the circumstances, I’ll happily settle for what amounts to a damn fine album from the band. It’s been far too long. 

Rating: B+