The music business circa 2011 is, as everybody knows, in the toilet. It’s a blessing and a curse for all involved — consumers, of course, have the option of buying songs one at a time, but that means album sales aren’t what they used to be so there’s little incentive for veteran artists to make records. All the money’s in touring.
Top-tier acts who still release albums every couple years are mostly doing it to satiate their muses. So it’s no wonder it took Stevie Nicks a full 10 years to get back to making a proper solo album.
“In Your Dreams,” out Tuesday, is her first studio album since 2001’s “Trouble in Shangri-La” and it’s been an excrutiatingly long wait for her bastion of rabid fans, among some of the most loyal in all of rock.
For all her ‘80s industriousness — she churned out an amazing amount of product both on her own and with Fleetwood Mac in that whirlwind decade — boy, did we pay for it in the ’00s. There were gems along the way — the 2003 Mac album “Say You Will” is an underrated tour de force for her and Lindsey Buckingham — but fans hoping she’d have a career renaissance after kicking years of drug problems were sorely disappointed. She seemed largely content to tour, do guest spots and the occasional hits package (“Crystal Visions”) or live project (“Soundstage Sessions”).
“Dreams,” a classy and melodically rich collaboration with Dave Stewart (The Eurythmics), arrives with anticipation set at fever-pitch levels. It’s been such a long wait, there’s almost no way the album could live up to expectations. But setting that aside and putting things into perspective, it’s pretty obvious from the first spin this is one of Nicks’ strongest, most consistent albums, perhaps even her best since 1985’s “Rock a Little.” It blows 1994’s dismal “Street Angel” away and while individual songs on “Trouble” are better than most of the tracks here, “Dreams” is overall a better, more cohesive album.
Several songs chug along with a mid-temp, driving beat reminiscent of “Talk to Me,” like first single “Secret Love,” the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired “Annabel Lee” and the slightly lighter, slightly slower “Everybody Loves You.” Several songs start slow but then blossom in unexpected ways — the rugged, jangly beat on “Wide Sargasso Sea” doesn’t kick in until the second verse; the strange and catchy “Moonlight (A Vampire’s Dream)” gradually picks up steam.
Most of the album follows these light rock/A.C.-flavored vibes and tempos. The lone rocker is also one of the album’s best cuts — the lyrically brilliant “Ghosts Are Gone,” an incisive snapshot of how past loves still haunt.
“For What It’s Worth” sounds a little flat at first — it’s a potent lyrical snapshot of the possibility of romance with someone who’s already in another relationship, but its refrain is initially almost an anti-chorus as it seems to sap the song of its momentum. Nicks doubles her vocals an octave higher on the second and third choruses, a trick used on several of the “Say You Will” cuts, that adds great texture again here.
Things get rather unexpected in the final three tracks. “You May Be the One,” a bluesy, torchy number provides welcomed contrast musically while penultimate cut “Italian Summer” finds Nicks actually belting something out for a change. Her vocal strengths, especially in recent years, have lied mostly in her distinctive timbre rather than oomph. She never had the lung power of, say, Annie Lennox or Ann Wilson (Heart), but she flirts with it on “Summer.” Here’s hoping she includes that in her live show — it has the potential to be a huge show-stopping moment.
The only dud is the odd, spare “Soldier’s Angel,” a duet with Buckingham that never catches fire. It’s a shame, too — it has a lovely lyric. Much better is “Cheaper Than Free,” a duet with Stewart that closes the record on a tender, understated note.
If there’s any overarching disappointment to the whole thing, it’s simply that Nicks feels a little too relaxed, a little too vocally middle of the road at age 62. Nobody, of course, is expecting her to tear it up like the wild woman she was in her early Mac years in the ‘70s, but it would have been great if Stewart and co-producer Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette) could have elicited a little of the vocal energy she brought to legendary cuts like “Stand Back,” “Edge of Seventeen,” “Seven Wonders” or “I Can’t Wait.” Nicks thanks her vocal coach in the liner notes. He’s probably done wonders for the longevity of her voice — few are the forces of nature like Tina Turner or gospel’s Shirley Caesar who can let it rip for decades on end — but if there’s any of that left in the Nicks pipeline, it would have given the album more energy and would have been great to get down on wax.
But that’s quibbling — overall, this is a stately, grand and highly welcomed return to recording from one of rock’s best, and in some ways underrated, singers.