Legendary rock n’ roll gypsy queen Stevie Nicks’ resurgence in popular culture continues with her eighth studio full-length, which is (at least for diehard fans) actually more like a greatest hits that never was.
Despite a hectic schedule (including a song on Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary, tours for herself and Fleetwood Mac, and an acting cameo on American Horror Story: Coven), infamously long, unproductive recording sessions for prior albums and long gaps between them, 24 Karat Gold only took three months to record and comes only three years since In Your Dreams.
In Your Dreams collaborator Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics), Stevie and loyal guitarist Waddy Watchel produced this album of fan-favourites whose demos have circulated as bootlegs that have since surfaced on YouTube. There is even a wondrous Vanessa Carlton cover of Carousel thrown in for good measure.
Opening tracks Starshine and The Dealer mark familiar territory, as they are mostly faithful to their original demos recorded for Stevie’s 1981 debut Bella Donna. The production is bright and the highly polished Nashville band is tight, with the sound of thumping drums, Hammond Organ, Watchel’s unmistakable guitar licks and the inimitable harmonies of faithful backing vocalists Sharon Celani and Lori Nicks. However, neither track has quite the sparkle of the demos as Stevie’s voice does not quite have the youthful glint it once had.
Meanwhile, the meandering demo recorded for 1985’s Rock a Little, Mabel Normand, finally sounds musically focused as a gritty country-rock slow-burner on 24 Karat Gold. Even with Stevie’s matured vocals, the condensed, stream-of-consciousness nature of the lyrics reflects her cocaine-addled state of mind at the time the song was written, as if she urgently had to get the words out. This album highlight, named after the tragic silent film star, is yet another impassioned warning about drug addiction after You Can’t Fix This off ‘Sound City’.
Blue Water marks a calming reprieve from the drama, sounding close to its original 1978 piano demo before adding a New Orleans-inspired twist with drums, organ and harmonies from Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley. Cathouse Blues (a very early composition from the late 1960s) is given a charming, carefree ragtime update with Stevie’s appropriately bluesy vocals.
The title track pulses steadily like Stevie’s original 1981 demo but is now sprinkled with magic dust thanks to chimes, glistening guitars and a hypnotic ‘chains, chains’ hook. Hard Advice (written about Tom Petty’s prep talk to get Stevie writing again after her mid-1990s, creativity-sapping Klonopin addiction) is propelled by a potent bridge about letting go of the past.
The cooking I Don’t Care (whose music was written by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell) is grimy hard rock that should make Led Zeppelin proud. Stevie’s ‘bitchy’ side seethes through the first few verses (written in the 1980s), before new verses (the only new compositions on this album) accelerate the song almost out of control as the band barely keeps up with Stevie’s defiant, forceful vocals.
The piano ballad Lady, demoed in the early 1970s, is a grower with a passionate vocal from Stevie that can be a bit overwhelming at times. Instead, Stevie is in her element at her softer, sultry best elsewhere. The dark, mysterious All the Beautiful Worlds is a particular revelation. Listeners would scratch their heads over why this simmering synth-pop midtempo was left off 1983’s The Wild Heart, and Stevie reaches high notes she has not touched in years. Cult favourite If You Were My Love is powerful yet quietly dignified with its sporadic echoing drumbeat, intricate guitar work from Davey Jonestone (Elton John) and heavenly three-way harmonies from the girls. The album closes with melancholy Irish flutes and music from Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler on the lovely, tender country ballad She Loves Him Still.
24 Karat Gold suffers from the same flaws as other Stevie Nicks solo albums. It runs a bit too long. Some fans have complained that other demos like Julia, Have No Heart and Space Needle are missing. Those looking for the next Landslide, Rhiannon or Dreams (or even the continuation of the Beauty and the Beast/Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You/Love Is piano trilogy) will be disappointed. However, there are genuine ’24 Karat Gold’ gems on this collection that are a revealing reflection of Stevie’s vivid memories at various points in her life. The only thing better will either be another studio album (with all-new material) or that long-awaited autobiography.