The Day HAIM Stopped Walking
The three sisters take us to the confines of their home and the troubled hours of rest in Women in Music Pt. III
Walking is a mundane activity that many artists have found interesting enough to be the main feature of their music videos. In the video for The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, Richard Ashcroft unapologetically bumps into strangers. In Thank U, Alanis Morisette, naked like Eve transported from Eden, stands still in the middle of a road in Downtown LA as pedestrians pass by.
But it is HAIM that, as some fans put in the familiar sardonic language of internet adoration, “invented walking.” In 2017, they paraded the empty stretch of Ventura Boulevard, occasionally drumming the air and breaking into dance, to the beat of their sophomore album’s lead single Want You Back. The three sisters planned to drive down Ventura and pull off a doughnut drift at the end of the song, but their concept proved to be risky: During the music video rehearsal, the car crashed into a parking meter. They figured walking was a safer option, and so they walked.
Two years later, the three sisters promenade the streets of their hometown while they take off layers upon layers of clothes in the Summer Girl video. “Legend says they’re still walking,” a comment on YouTube reads. The “legend” turned out to be true when HAIM released the video for Now I’m in It, where, unlike in their previous releases, they strut panic-stricken. Their calm returns in Hallelujah. In the video, they move chairs and curtains with telepathy. As the music approaches its end, we see Este manning the ticket booth, Alana fixing the letters on the signboard and Danielle walking out of the theater. “Danielle gave us what we all wanted,” a YouTube user comments.
“Honestly, I never thought that a thing that I do every day—walk—would make such an impact on people, but I guess we’re super good at walking,” Alana tells Variety.
It turns out that walking in their context is a subversive act. HAIM is from Los Angeles. It’s a sprawling city that is characterized by meandering highways. To say that an urban center is becoming much like LA is just another way of describing the emergence of entangled road networks and, in effect, the unconscious prioritization of automobiles over pedestrians. Walking in LA is an oxymoron, says Alana. “No one does that here.” And yet they do.
But in the video for The Steps, the first single released after the announcement of their third album, the sisters aren’t promenading the streets of LA. They are confined in a house, doing the mundane and absurd things one might do upon waking up to an aimless day. “It’s called The Steps, but there’s no walking,” one comment reads.
Soon after its release, the COVID-19 outbreak was classified as a pandemic, and California (and the majority of the world) was placed in quarantine. Although they marched for Black Lives Matter, the girls would not wander the streets of their hometown or any other place like the way they used to.
When Women in Music Pt. III (also known as WIMPIII or WIMP 3) arrived on June 26, I realized that The Steps video is a precedent to the lyrical imagery the album evokes. And perhaps their halt from walking, as much as it is a repercussion of the pandemic, is an apt reflection of the narrative they share on the album.
Unlike in their previous records, WIMPIII is unafraid to bare not only the emotional weight they carry, but also paint in detail how their feelings of forlorn manifest in their physical realm.
HAIM has always had the California sound. However, it is in WIMPIII is that they address Los Angeles for the first time. With textures from the saxophone in the beginning and the chatter towards the bridge, the eponymous track is an apt opener that establishes the rawness of the album’s sonic palette.
Los Angeles, which could have been a relative of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Now I Don’t Hate California After All, is a letter to their hometown, but not in adoration of it. “In a weird twist of events, that song is not even really about our love for LA. It’s about us falling out of love with it,” Alana tells Variety. Los Angeles is the type of song one listens to while driving around town. It’s one of the few songs where mobility takes shape. In several tracks, they languish indoors and chase sleep.
In Up for a Dream, for example, they write about the unintentionally waking up and, at some point, contemplating slipping out the front door only to find themselves making their way back to the bed. In 3AM, they are woken up at, well, 3AM by a call “[they’re] picking up for the last time.” Leaning on You declares that they “might sleep past all [their] alarms.” I’ve Been Down illustrates nights of erratic sleep where the endless stream of images on TV and TikTok replaces what should have been a flow of dreams during REM. I Know Alone depicts the blur of time that is all too familiar to us now. “Sleeping through the day and I dream the same,” sings Danielle in the first verse of I Know Alone. When we reach FUBT, they struggle to fall into slumber because of their inability to dream. Even the album title itself is a remnant of sleep.
There is duplicity in sleep. It can be an angel that descends under a ray of light or a wild beast that is hard to pin down. Sleep can be an escape. “This was the beauty of sleep—reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream,” the nameless protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, who—spoiler alert—sleeps through a year with the help of the fictional drug Infirmiterol in hopes of becoming a brand new person, says. But sleep, too, can escape you, as is the case with the English author Samantha Harvey who chronicles how sleep left her for a year in her 2020 memoir The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping.
Sleep is a battleground, so much so when anxiety, fear, worry, or loneliness—one by one, or maybe all at once—intrudes the stillness of the mind as it shuts down. That feeling consumes your hours and then, without you knowing it, it consumes you.
WIMPIII took shape during a period dark enough to invite the sleep troubles that permeated the songs mentioned earlier. In an interview with Genius, the girls attribute the origin of Now I’m in It to the exhausting cycle of writing a record, putting it out and touring. “It’s something that we love to do so much, but we weren’t really addressing [what was] happening in our personal lives and our health. I think you can only put those things off for so long, and then it kind of starts to rear its ugly head into your life in different ways,” says Este. These personal struggles include Este battling with type one diabetes, Alana losing her best friend before going out on tour, and Danielle’s boyfriend, HAIM’s co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid, being diagnosed with cancer.
“We wrote a lot of these songs in this dark place,” Danielle tells Variety, “but we had this lightness making the recorded music—I mean, it’s bizarre.”
There is a kind of loneliness that cannot be hidden under the veil of euphemism. Because it is too exhausting to bear its weight, you forego painterly ways and call it what it is. I imagine that it might be that kind of loneliness that struck HAIM. Perhaps that is why we hear lyrics like “I get sad, you know I get sad” or “I know alone like no one else does.” But WIMPIII, as much as it dwells in a state of vulnerability, is an intimate narrative about recovery. Amid the seemingly inextricable loneliness, there are those little moments of solace.
The progression of the album’s 16 tracks embodies fluctuating emotions, but the message the sisters want to tell each other (and all the fourth HAIM sisters all over the world) is clear: It gets better.
WIMPIII ends on a sunny, vibrant note with Summer Girl. It exudes the kind of calm one experiences when the end is palpable. Consider the moment the protagonist of some coming-of-age film experiences right before the final credits roll. Everything that has led the character to this point has been defeated and resolved, and all there is left to do is breathe and stare into space.
There is a line from the song that I can’t quite shake off my mind, even after listening to the whole album. “Walk beside me,” sings Danielle, ushering the return of the mellifluous saxophone riff, “not behind me.” There is so much power in this line. For one, it’s an expression of consent. Woven into the overarching narrative of the album, this is the point where they are in the position to shine a light—an act their dejected selves lament in I Know Alone (“when Sunday comes, they expect me to shine”)—on someone else and be their Summer Girl. “Feel my unconditional love,” adds Danielle. At this point of the album, their growth is eminent. They have picked themselves up with the help of one another. And we know what’s next—they walk.
Their release cycle for the album continues with the music video for Don’t Wanna. Este, Danielle and Alana stand beside each other, the sky behind and above them painted in vivid orange. They walk, then run, playfully trying to outpace whoever is leading. It’s a reassuring image after experiencing the whole of WIMPIII.
“I love it. They’re walking again,” cheers a self-proclaimed fourth HAIM sister.
Stream Women in Music Pt. III, out everywhere now.
Words Oliver Emocling
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver