24 Karat Gold: Songs from the Vault is a glorified act of copyright protection. Stevie Nicks reportedly decided to revisit old demos when she was informed that they’d been bootlegged and uploaded to the Internet. This was no doubt a shock to the technophobic Nicks, who doesn’t own a cellphone and communicates with fans via handwritten letters that are uploaded to her website by members of her team.
The material, written from 1969 through the ’90s and newly recorded here, is significantly sharper than what was found on Nicks’s last studio album, 2011’s In Your Dreams. The new recordings mostly dispense with the awkward electronic flourishes (vocal distortion, canned synths) that have marred other recent Nicks-related recordings. “Starshine” is given an uptempo, straight-ahead rock treatment that recalls Nicks’s collaborations with Tom Petty, while on “The Dealer” she almost perfectly embodies her ’70s glory days with Fleetwood Mac. The latter finds Nicks looking back at a failed relationship, though it cleverly doubles as a longer-term survey of loves lost and reconciled, particularly with bandmates Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood. “If I’d known a little more, I’d have run away,” she laments, but of course she didn’t, and now she’s on a sold-out tour with both of those men.
Old flames occupy much of the subject matter throughout the album, and even when Nicks isn’t explicitly singing about herself, it’s hard not to read autobiographical meanings into the songs. The silent-era comedienne Mabel Normand, who gets a tribute song here, is a character with whom Nicks clearly identifies, singing about her “quietly crying” heart underneath all her beauty and talent. And Nicks even tips her hat to friend Vanessa Carlton with a cover of the latter’s “Carousel,” adding little to it beyond some fairy-tale harpsichord, though there’s poignancy in seeing Nicks return the favor of paving the way for Carlton’s career with a song about how everything comes back again.
Unfortunately, 24 Karat is stuffed with too many stately piano-and-guitar ballads that return to the same theme of bygone romance. The one wild turn from that format is “Cathouse Blues,” a slinky ode to Nicks’s high-heeled strut that sounds like something you’d hear wafting from a sweaty bar on the Mississippi River. While not Nicks’s first time fetishizing the South (see “New Orleans”), it’s unfortunately so ill-suited to the California mystical dream-girl aesthetic that she’s carefully cultivated over the years that it comes off as an unintended joke.
There’s a fundamental paradox to Nicks’s brand, which she once referred to in a moment of rare self-awareness as “the Stevie Nicks thing.” Though she plays the perpetually tender, romantic, emotionally available, spurned woman, Nicks has always had an air of cool detachment that puts her at a remove from listeners. On songs like “The Dealer,” “She Loves Him Still,” and “Hard Advice,” she re-spins the same old image of a Nicks who’s gripped by long-ago love affairs with fellow musicians—“dreams to be sold,” as she puts it on the title track—while her current life is kept somewhere out of view. The most illuminating moment is on “Lady,” which reveals the deep chasm between the naïve woman who wrote it after moving to L.A. to become a rock star and the 66-year-old she is now, looking uncertainly over her empire. “What is to become of me?” she pleads with appropriate dramatic irony. Nick has always given us just enough snatches of insight to keep us wondering the very same thing.