Graded on a Curve:
Stevie Nicks,
Bella Donna

Talk about your sweet essence of unicorn–Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks was THEE gossamer High Priestess of Pop from the mid-1970s until the late 1980s, a white-winged dove and New Age sex symbol whose smoky, country rock-tinged vocals and gauzy, fantasy-themed ensembles inspired crystal visions in a whole generation of adolescents, both male and female.

Nicks established herself as a beguiling striker of mystical poses and magnetic personality of the sort that birds of exotic stripe like to perch on for reasons even they don’t fully comprehend. Just ask the cockatoo on the cover of Nick’s 1981 solo debut Bella Donna how he got there. He won’t be able to tell you.

Stevie has always been big on magic, and on Bella Donna she pulled off a conjuring trick that proved she could alchemize vinyl into platinum without the help of her Fleetwood Mac bandmates. And the bewitching one did it while dating the odious Don Henley. Had Stevie REALLY wanted to show off her sorceress’s skills she’d have turned her one-time beau from an Eagle into a Sri Lankan Frogmouth, but I digress.

But Bella Donna isn’t really magic; Nicks put it together the old-fashioned way, by writing a bunch of rock solid songs that may have sounded middle of the road to the critics, punk rockers, and New Wavers of the time but have withstood the test of time. In short, Nicks employed good old-fashioned popcraft, and added her trademark mystical sheen to the results. Call Bella Donna aural valium if you want, but haven’t your ears ever wanted to curl up into little balls of undifferentiated tissue and just relax?

Not surprisingly, smoky pop songs predominate. The country rock tunes come as more of a surprise. “After the Glitter Fades” has such a “Rhinestone Cowboy” vibe to it Glen Campbell saw fit to cover it, and for good reason; it’s pure El Lay Country Glam right down to Nicks’ “Well I never thought I’d make it here in Hollywood.” And Nicks drapes country lament “The Highwayman” in fairy lights with a lot of witchy “Haute Couture & Western” lyrics along the lines of “Her horse is like a dragonfly/She is just a fool.” I can hear Hank Williams Jr. singing the song but I sure as hell can’t hear him singing the words, if you know what I mean.

“How Still My Love” is a classic Fleetwood Mac track right down to Waddy Wachtel’s very Lindsey Buckingham guitar and Russ Kunkel’s very Mick Fleetwood drumming. It has a sultry, slinky F.M. (as in radio) vibe to it, as does (to a lesser extent) the very straight-up “Think About It,” which is harbored by Wachtel’s big guitar riff and some rock solid drumming by old Russ.

“Outside the Rain” shows Tom Petty’s influence; slip Petty in on vocals instead of Nicks and what you’ve got is classic T.P. and the Heartbreakers. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Heartbreakers Mike Campell and Benmont Tench play on it. And speaking of Nicks and Petty, their duet on Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” is for the ages. Nicks adapts her phrasing to meet Tom’s slur and drag midway, and who knew two great tastes would taste so great together?

“Edge of Seventeen” is the LP’s standout track; it holds up against the best of Fleetwood Mac and will be played forever thanks to Wachtel’s striking 16th note guitar riff (which he admitted he swiped from the Police) and Nick’s banshee wail. Who cares if I spent DECADES thinking she was singing about a one-winged dove? You probably did too. And our collective mondegreen just upped the ante on this very sad song.

As for the frilly but durable “Leather and Lace,” it’s a perfectly good karaoke tune and lovebirds Nicks and Henley acquit themselves well. Dave Grohl and Will Farrell thought so highly of this acoustic ballad they saw fit to perform it live, and what higher praise can you bestow upon a silly love long? I’d like it more if Henley was the one wearing the lace, but I’m funny that way.

Bella Donna isn’t as good as Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous Fleetwood Mac (1975) or its follow-up Rumours (1977)–Nicks’ debut, while strong, is short on killer tunes of the sort that make those albums such landmarks, and it lacks their deceptively easy slipstream feel as well.

That said, there’s no denying the prettier songbird took what she learned from her superstar bandmates and turned her knowledge to good stead. And she took astral plane twaddle and bird handling to dazzling new heights while she was at it. I may not be much on ornithology, but I’m always happy when this white-winged dove of an LP alights on my turntable.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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