“You can talk to me,” Stevie Nicks coos on the chorus of her latest hit single. “You can set your secrets free, baby.” She’s got a sympathetic ear, all right. On the rest of Rock a Little, she comes on like an AM-radio psychologist, dispensing stern but friendly advice, spinning little parables and probing deep feelings with incredibly vague language. It’s all quite earnest and usually fairly tuneful; Stevie’s distinctive growl can attach a hook to some pretty slippery sentiments. But for a pop album, Rock a Little sounds strangely distant, out of touch. Plopped down next to purring synthesizers and the patter of drum machines, Stevie’s sugary moans sound harsh and jarring. The attempts to “contemporize” some of these 4/4 strum-along ditties ruin what would otherwise be an untouched curio, a relic from the forgotten age of the singer/songwriter.
Not that it was all that long ago. But it’s odd how so many of the rock and pop bands of the Seventies have lost their way in this decade. Even such sturdy pines as Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne bend and sway on their recent releases, battered by shifting tastes not only in music but in subject matter and style as well. Only the newly shorn former Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey, recasting themselves as sleek, rough-voiced crooners in the Miami Vice mold, have managed to age gracefully. And compared with Henley’s taut command of modern dance music on Building the Perfect Beast, Stevie seems a bit shaky. The guitar-based music on Rock a Little sounds unfocused, at times almost nostalgic. It’s disquieting hearing a song with the line “Our voices stray from the common ground where they could meet” on the same station with, oh, “Stop using sex as a weapon.”
Stevie Nicks may have prefigured Madonna’s and Prince’s lace fetishes, but the tart frankness of today’s Top Ten makes her seem a bit of a prude. “Talk to Me” plows along with the easy momentum of a Cyndi Lauper hit, the chugging guitars broken by synth wallops for emphasis. But Stevie’s bluesy murmur sounds a little tired, as if all she wants to do is talk, thanks. On the opening cut, “I Can’t Wait,” she waxes urgent but ultimately gets shellacked by layers of buzz-saw guitars and a nervous beat box. As for a statement of purpose, “I Sing for the Things” (“that money can’t buy,” natch) is definitely postfeminist: “I’ll take off my cape for you…Anything you want me to do…I’ll sit at home and wait for you.” Maybe its just my taste, but the combined synths and steel guitars on that track achieve the consistency of curdled milk. On the aforementioned tunes, at least, Stevie is being direct. When she starts setting her secrets free, weaving apocryphal situations and creating moony, enigmatic characters, the going gets a bit thick.
Well, there’s “Sister Honey,” who discovers that “a soul that’s true is your ride to glory.” Or take Lily, the “rock and roll ballerina” in the title tune, who seems to have a paralyzing case of the willies; the subdued gasp of the guitar line on that one sounds as hesitant as Lily does. Then there’s the hopeless dreamer who confuses reality with “The Nightmare” and gets “blinded by the light of the day.” It’s a silly line that Stevie intones with all the strained majesty she used with something like “Thunder only happens when it’s raining.” As unrealistic (and unfair) as it is to hold artists’ pasts against them, it’s telling that Stevie Nicks sounds most comfortable, and most convincing, on songs that recall Fleetwood Mac.
Though her attempts at profundity may fall short, Stevie Nicks can still take an unassuming little rock song and polish it into a gem. Her melismatic slurs turn the treacly melody of “Some Become Strangers” into a lush, extended sigh gilded with a rich and gooey guitar texture. Wistful but not maudlin, it’s the sort of pop confection Fleetwood Mac and Rumours were strewn with. And at the other extreme, the ringing guitar chords and electric organ washes of “Imperial Hotel” force Stevie to drop the therapist’s mask and wail for a while, reaching a delectable screech reminiscent of her saddle-sore crooning with Tom Petty on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Since the newer song was cowritten with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, that’s only appropriate. It’s the album’s high point, despite meandering lyrics depicting the usual moody figures in a shady rendezvous. (This is something we’ll be hearing more and more often, I’m afraid ‘ songs that conjure up images from yet unmade videos.) Given decent material like “Some Become Strangers” or her collaboration with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Stevie Nicks wields an authoritative, even stunning instrument ‘ it’d be great for her to wrap her tentacles around one of Holly Knight’s modern-day pop psychodramas like “Obsession.” But left to her won devices, Stevie Nicks veers dangerously close to self-parody. The sensitive rock artiste, making self-indulgent solo statements in a vacuum, supposedly died out with the dinosaurs in the late Seventies. But these days, it often seems like punk never happened anyway. The real shame is that Stevie Nicks could make good records again, if she’d only follow her own advice and rock a little.
Mark Coleman / Rolling Stone / January 30, 1986