Recorded by Matthew Sweet (Susanna’s frequent collaborator) at his home studio in the Hollywood Hills, with much of the overdubbing done at the home studios of Vicki and Susanna, and mixed by Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Wilco), SWEETHEART OF THE SUN reveals The Bangles at their equally beguiling extremes, as soaring folk-rock harmonies coexist with adrenalized rave-ups inspired by the band’s roots in Nuggets-era garage rock. The latter move is made overt by the two covers: a wild and woolly recapturing of the obscure British Invasion treasure Sweet and Tender Romance by Scotland’s McKinley Sisters, on which Vicki thrillingly channels Jimmy Page, who played the guitar solo on the original, and a blistering take on Todd Rundgren’s Nazz classic Open My Eyes, which they’ve been playing live since the mid-’80s.
“When we started this record, some of the songs we were gathering were CSNY-style folk-pop,” Vicki explains, “but then we realized the songs we love to play live are fast rock songs, so let’s grab some of those as well.”
The Bangles cut the album with bassist Derrick Anderson and keyboard player Greg “Harpo” Hilfman, both of whom have been playing with the band for some time. String wizard Greg Leisz, one of the most in-demand players in contemporary music (Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Matthew Sweet, Lucinda Williams, Bon Iver) adds pedal steel, lap steel and mandolin to a number of tracks. The performances, like the material, are the most expressive and assured of the band’s career, indicating how tight they’ve become during their years of playing together.
Some of the 10 original songs on this 12-song album are new, while others had extremely long gestation periods, tucked away, but not forgotten, as Susanna puts it. In a sense then, the album doubles as a song cycle documenting the last couple of decades in the lives of these three artists. The oldest, dating back to the early ’90s, is Debbi’s high-revving aggro kiss-off, Ball N Chain. The three of them jointly came up with the newest song, the shimmering opening track, Anna Lee (Sweetheart of the Sun), during the recording sessions.
The latter song, inspired by the “ladies of the canyon” section of Sheila Weller’s book Girls Like Us about the careers of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon, culminates with these lines: “Now we want to celebrate her/All of us who came in later/Quiet power, simple grace/No man could put you in your place right now/We all wanna be/Anne Lee.”
At the same time, SWEETHEART OF THE SUN yields a pair of resonant themes that hew close to the life experience of the core band members. The first, examined in songs like Susanna’s Under a Cloud (with its reference to “bailing out water/From this lush life boat”) and Vicki’s Lay Yourself Down (“We live in a fable/We live in a make-believe town/All cardboard and dust”), finds the Bangles delving into the unique character of their shared hometown of Los Angeles, in a sort of musical update of the inner turmoil of the characters in Joan Didion’s classic novel, Play It as It Lays.
“As we were finishing the record,” says Vicki, “we started to realize there was a unifying theme - paradise lost in Southern California, the perception juxtaposed with the reality of it.” Susanna picks up the thought: “L.A. is like paradise - the sun shines 360 days a year, the flowers are always in bloom - but meanwhile, so many people are walking around alienated, depressed and anxious.”
The other prevailing theme, found in Vicki’s Circles in the Sky (written as a birthday present for her husband, John Cowsill, who sings backing vocals on the track), the group-written Mesmerized (which contains the lovely phrase “When day becomes the night becomes the day”), Debbi’s One of Two and Susanna’s I’ll Never Be Through With You delve into the inevitable challenges posed by the demands of any long-term relationship. These songs ponder “the ups and downs, the challenges that life puts in front of you that you weather and get through,” Susanna explains. “At the end of the day, love is the most important thing in our lives; we’re so lucky if we find it, and we have to nurture and cherish it.”
So why are they still making music, and still doing it together? After all, each of them has a fulfilling life outside of the band. They don’t have to keep doing it.
“I feel like I do have to do it,” says Vicki, “but more importantly, I want to do it - we all do. The writing and recording have become more enjoyable than ever. You could argue that it took us two years to make the record, it’s been seven years since our last record and most of these songs were written 10 years ago or more - so what’s new? My answer is that, during the course of making this record, we came up with a really nice working method that makes it doable for us and easy to fit in with other aspects of our lives. I think creating new music is a really important aspect of being in a band, and I’m already excited about writing new songs and starting the next record.”
Adds Debbi, always the most succinct of the three, “I think it’s important for all of us to keep moving on and creating, because that’s why we got into this in the first place.”
Remarkably, the Bangles’ second time around has lasted longer than the first, as the three longtime partners harmoniously coexist with their respective husbands and children; making music together is now another familiar, rewarding part of their lives.
Much has changed in the lives and careers of Vicki, Debbi and Susanna since that first time they played and sang together in the Hoffs' family garage 30 years ago. But one fundamental element remains unchanged from that magical day. “Within two hours,” Vicki fondly remembers, “we were a band, the three of us. And we still are.”