An analysis of Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna, which was released 35 years ago today.
When most people think of Bella Donna, the debut album from Stevie Nicks as a solo artist, they paint their picture of it with broad brush strokes. The general public may not immediately know the album title, for instance, but they know the cover image, the iconic portrait of Stevie Nicks draped in chiffon with her white winged dove. They might think of the HBO concert special, one of the earliest and most watched specials on the network. They think of the singles it produced — ”Edge of Seventeen,” “Leather And Lace,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” — the songs you’ll hear the most on the radio, the ones that get scream-sung late at night when people who have had more than a few drinks try their hands at karaoke.
But good singles do not a good album make. Even if every song on the album is near perfection, it still may not be a good album. No, there has to be a relationship between tracks, a red thread from the first song to the last that ties everything together. There has to be a connection of sorts that makes the listener understand what exactly it is they’re feeling, how the puzzle pieces fit together to form the whole picture, even if they may not be cognizant of it.
A good album needs to accomplish the difficult task of having a concept without becoming a concept album. Not many albums can do this. Not even all Stevie Nicks albums do this. But Bella Donna does, and it succeeds in a way that few albums do.
Bella Donna is a trust album. It’s a loyalty album. From its inception to its songs — even the ones that were cut from the final output — to its legacy, the theme never wavers. It’s introspective and highly personal, at times clearly lines pulled from a diary, but it manages to convey feelings universal enough for others to identify with.
It poses questions about loyalty and trust in relationships: What do you do about the possibility that your lover may not be loyal when you’re not there — and why would he want to stray? How do you have faith that he’s telling the truth? Can you trust that someone will stop playing with your emotions? Can you trust yourself to know the difference between what is good in the heat of night and good in the reality of day? How do you ask for someone to be loyal to you without losing your independence, without seeming needy? Could you love me only? Really — could you? (“Kind of Woman,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” “How Still My Love,” “Leather And Lace,” “Outside The Rain”)
It makes you think about your own self: Can you stay loyal to who you are, truly, underneath all the things that change, particularly with fame and success? Do you have enough trust in yourself to not quit, to know that things will work out, no matter how hard it may get? Do you have enough trust in other people to relentlessly charge forward, to know that good people are out there, no matter how tragic or terrifying the world may seem? How do you stay loyal to your dreams and aspirations when they may be difficult, when they may be inconvenient for those around you, when you have to make sacrifices to do so?(“Bella Donna,” “Think About It,” “After The Glitter Fades,” “Edge of Seventeen,” “The Highwayman)
The themes of loyalty and trust seep out of the album and touch both its creation and legacy. It was a project pursued for personal reasons, out of a loyalty to herself. Nicks had to do something with the songs she had spent years putting away in storage, the ones she felt obligated to share with the world. She owed it to herself to make her voice heard just a little bit louder. To do so, she had to trust herself. Could she stand alone as an artist, without the support of Fleetwood Mac behind her?
In return, Fleetwood Mac had to invest trust in her. Very few bands see a lead singer pursue a solo project without it hurting the group as a whole. If they’re a breakout star, the band won’t survive — think Linda Ronstadt without the Stone Poneys, Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel without Genesis. If they bomb, it’s a lasting pockmark on the band’s history — see Mick Jagger sans the Rolling Stones or Roger Daltrey without the Who.
There had to be a mutual trust that Nicks would be okay, that the band would survive her wild success or her grand failure, whichever it may be. It wasn’t easy then, and it certainly wasn’t a move any successful band with the rarity of having a girl as one of their leads would make. It rarely works today, even, though Nicks’s anomalous success inspired a new generation to try their hand — look at No Doubt and Gwen Stefani, Rilo Kiley and Jenny Lewis, Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé.
And those who do succeed at finding their own identities outside bands change a little. They have new producers who help them find their new, different sound. Their backup band may change members. Their friends and collaborators may come and go.
But Stevie Nicks is loyal to a fault, and that is the legacy she created 35 years ago. She wasn’t going anywhere. She didn’t go anywhere. Bella Donna hit number one on the Billboard charts. It remained a bestseller for nearly three years. It firmly cemented her artistry and her ability to do things on by herself, with no one there to catch her if she fell. And still, she returned to Fleetwood Mac.
Stevie Nicks is great on her own, but she wasn’t going to turn her back on the people who make her better. She wasn’t going to leave the people who were there by her side when she was still a struggling artist, cleaning houses and waiting tables. Thirty-five years later, and her backup singers are still the same women who harmonized with her when they had no idea if the project would be a success or a bomb. Her band leader is still Waddy Wachtel, the same man who played on the first album she made with Lindsey Buckingham 43 years ago. She still sacrifices vacations and more solo projects and family to work with Fleetwood Mac. Thirty-five years later, and everything has changed, but everything still remains the same.
Songs, money, success — all that comes and goes. Loyalty and trust — those endure. And that’s what makes Bella Donna a great album: it’s more than the music. It’s the overall tone it sets between the lines and long after it stops playing.