Death by Power Ballad: Heart, “Alone”
Heart’s second coming coincided with the golden era of the power ballad arts. Remember—this is the group that roared out of the Seattle area (by way of Canada) before the Seattle area was known for much more than timber, the Space Needle, and lots of rain. Originally presented as a kind of chick Zeppelin—thanks in no small part to Ann Wilson’s Plantesque caterwaul—the band seemed to peter out three years after Zeppelin’s 1980 demise, with the underrated Passionworks, their last record for CBS.
Of course, two years later, Heart scored a Number One album with their self-titled Capitol debut, and followed it up in 1987 with Bad Animals. Each record was produced by God’s gift to power balladry, Ron Nevison, and each was terrific in its own way. One had to notice, however, that the Wilson sisters increasingly ceded writing duties to pros outside the band. “What About Love,” the mammoth first single from Heart, was credited to Jim Vallance and two others; “These Dreams,” their first chart-topping hit, was a Martin Page/Bernie Taupin co-write.
Bad Animals‘ first single was “Alone,” and it was something of a cover tune. Written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (who had given us “Like a Virgin,” “Eternal Flame,” “Sex as a Weapon,” “I Touch Myself,” and approximately 8,500 other Eighties hits), it was originally recorded by the writers’ band I-Ten in 1983. The song went nowhere. In 1984, it was recorded by quasi-/faux-/not even remotely a Beach Boy John Stamos for some sitcom or another, and not only did the song go nowhere, it went beyond nowhere, actually disappearing from this plane of existence for several months before struggling mightily to return to nowhere (Stamos has that effect on music).
“Alone” found its voice when Heart recorded it, and the voice it found was none other than Ann Wilson’s. In the hands of this veritable force of nature, “Alone” became one of the mightiest of all power ballads, an exercise in stopping the world dead in its tracks and making its inhabitants burn in the vast and intense fire of its singer’s longing. Granted, neither Wilson nor Heart wanted to hurt anyone, so the band consulted with physicists, auditory specialists, and Aquaman, in order to properly calibrate the recording’s awesomeness so that neither human nor beast on land or sea would be harmed once the song was released. Nevison had to wear protective gloves when mixing the record. Drummer Denny Carmassi had to wear a helmet. Bassist Mark Andes had to wear a cup. Bassist Mark Andes had to be told by drummer Denny Carmassi that the kind of cup he needed was not the kind they kept in the studio kitchen.
It’s difficult to pinpoint just one great thing about the song, aside from the voice. The verses are quiet, almost coiled, waiting for the conclusion of the last word to allow the song to spring into that chorus—kudos to Kelly and Steinberg for the use of such dynamics in their composition. But in none of the previous (or subsequent) versions of the song was that chorus so bullet-train-smacking-into-brick-wall forceful as it is in Heart’s version, a testament in large part to Nevison’s prowess as producer and the song’s arrangement, not to mention the band’s ability to pull it off.
But back to the voice. You hear the subtlety of Wilson’s gift in the first verse, when it’s just her and the keyboard. You hear the flat-out authority she brings to the song in the first chorus. You hear the modest interplay with the background vocal in the second verse and the manner with which she plays with the buildup at the end of that verse. Nothing quite prepares you, though, for the almost feral wordless exclamation that precedes the second chorus. I’ve heard everyone from Celine Dion to my kid sister try to master it, to mimic it, to channel Wilson’s command and dominance. No dice. Can’t be done. The woman practically blew up Alderaan with that sound, and Carrie Underwood’s supposed to be worthy of such ascension? No offense to country music’s sweetheart, but I think not.
Wilson can still bring it live, too, at 60 years old. That’s the power of a great voice, a weapons-grade vocal, put to the task of launching a great song and keeping it in flight. The word awesome was made for singers like Ann Wilson, and songs like “Alone.”