Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bonnie Raitt

  • Bonnie Raitt [Warner Bros., 1971] A-
  • Give It Up [Warner Bros., 1972] A
  • Takin' My Time [Warner Bros., 1973] A-
  • Streetlights [Warner Bros., 1974] B
  • Home Plate [Warner Bros., 1975] A
  • Sweet Forgiveness [Warner Bros., 1977] A-
  • The Glow [Warner Bros., 1979] B+
  • Green Light [Warner Bros., 1982] A-
  • Nine Lives [Warner Bros., 1986] C+
  • Nick of Time [Capitol, 1989] B
  • Luck of the Draw [Capitol, 1991] A
  • Longing in Their Hearts [Capitol, 1994] Neither
  • Road Tested [Capitol, 1995] A-
  • Fundamental [Capitol, 1998] A-
  • Silver Lining [Capitol, 2002] B-
  • Slipstream [Redwing, 2012] **
  • Just Like That . . . [Redwing, 2022] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Bonnie Raitt [Warner Bros., 1971]
A singer-guitarist (and occasional composer) who renders all the Collins/Baez melodrama superfluous. Raitt is a folkie by history but not by aesthetic. She includes songs from Steve Stills, the Marvelettes, and a classic feminist blues singer named Sippie Wallace because she knows the world doesn't end with acoustic song-poems and Fred McDowell. An adult repertoire that rocks with a steady roll, and she's all of twenty-one years old. A-

Give It Up [Warner Bros., 1972]
Raitt's laid-back style (shades of John Hurt and John Hammond, touches of Aretha Franklin and Bessie Smith) is unique in its active maturity, intelligence, and warmth. With Chris Smither's "Love Me Like a Man" ("lyrics adapted by Bonnie Raitt") and Sippie Wallace's "You Got to Know How" she dares any crotch-rocker to match her sexual expertise. On Joel Zoss's "Stayed Too Long at the Fair" and Jackson Browne's "Under the Falling Sky" she dares any sensitive type to wax lyrical without a drum kit. And on her own "You Told Me Baby" and "Nothing Seems to Matter" she invites Lenny Welch to return the favor. A

Takin' My Time [Warner Bros., 1973]
I hear people asking when Bonnie is going to do something new, but conveying songs from Calypso Rose and Martha Reeves Vandella into the women's music of the '70s is new enough for me. I must admit, though, that neither statement is enhanced by association with the folkies whose ballads she favors--too pretty, too ordinary. A-

Streetlights [Warner Bros., 1974]
Best cut: Allen Toussaint's "What Is Success," about the "so necessary" spiritual expenditures entered above a record company's bottom line. Whereupon Raitt pays her tribute to schlock four times over. Typically, she can uncover a stirring moment in the most stillborn possible-single, but the limits of her integrity have already been defined by three flexible, often playful, yet obviously uncompromising albums, and when the strings and woodwinds rise up, they dispossess her. Even "What Is Success" suffers a setback when Raitt accedes to Toussaint's impersonal "he." That's no "he," Bonnie--that's you. B

Home Plate [Warner Bros., 1975]
Produced with much tape trickery and laying on of experts by Paul Rothchild, this defeats its own gloss by refining and expanding the conventions of emotive, projective "sincerity" that have informed pop music from Al Jolson to Linda Ronstadt. By her thoughtful phrasing and gentle-to-gritty timbre, by her understated dramatic presence, by the songs she chooses to sing, Raitt makes her "compassion" seem unsentimental and even sharp-tongued without any loss of outreach. I love every cut, from John and Johanna Hall's "Good Enough," her most alluring analysis of a long-term sexual relationship yet, to John David Souther's "Run Like a Thief," which is about going to bed with your best friend's mate. A

Sweet Forgiveness [Warner Bros., 1977]
Although Paul Rothchild edited Bonnie's road band as painstakingly as he did the El Lay pros of Home Plate, this came out sounding unfashionably raw, almost live, because instead of punching in the perfect note and the clean tone he went for the most intense moment available from months of takes. I don't like "Runaway," which is flat and plodding and wrong for her, and I wish there were a stunner like "Good Enough" or "Sweet and Shiny Eyes" here. But Bonnie is singing rougher than ever before. Anyone who can induce me to dance to Eric Kaz has got to be doing some kind of job. A-

The Glow [Warner Bros., 1979]
I suppose I should blame Peter Asher for how flat a few of these songs sound, but in fact I blame him only for pianist Don Grolnick, who single-handedly (well, actually I guess he used two) transforms the title cut from a cry of alcoholic despair to a self-pitying piece of hightone lounge schlock. She's never sounded better on the slow ones--Hayes-Porter's "Your Good Thing" is the killer--and her own "Standing by the Same Old Love" adds significantly to the pitiful store of rock songs about enduring sexual relationships. But I could stand some more hard raunch. B+

Green Light [Warner Bros., 1982]
On The Glow the present-day female interpreter refused to die, and now she does even better by the suspect notion of good ol' you-know-what. The strength of this album runs too deep to rise up and grab you all at once, so you might begin with "Me and the Boys," arch as usual from NRBQ but formally advanced pull-out-the-stops (with all postfeminist peculiarities accounted for) when Bonnie and the boys get down on it. Other starting points: "I Can't Help Myself," in which she takes more helpings than she can count, and "River of Tears," in which Eric Kaz rocks one more once. A-

Nine Lives [Warner Bros., 1986]
Sometimes selling out takes courage, and it's heartening in a way that Raitt, who's hardly immune to moldy fig, is willing to adapt her blues-rock to hookarama convention. But her laidback grit doesn't quite mesh with the style, which likes its singers shiny and up-up-up. Either that or she couldn't put her heart into a depressingly conventional set of theoretical singles. C+

Nick of Time [Capitol, 1989]
"A lot of people were probably wondering when they heard about the pairing whether I was going to make a funk record like Was (Not Was)," Bonnie surmises. Right--loyalists were shaking in their boots, I was licking my lips, and now the suspense is over, unfortunately. She deserves respect, not the obeisance she gets from career sicko Don Was, who fashions an amazing simulation of the El Lay aesthetic she helped perfect and we all thought he hated. Bonnie being Bonnie, it sounds perfectly OK, but most of the songs are so subtly crafted they disappear under her tender loving ministrations, and though Was lets her play guitar for the whole first side, his studio pros could just as well be Peter Asher's. B

Luck of the Draw [Capitol, 1991]
One reason it took Raitt two decades to achieve the El Lay iconicity she deserves is her resistance to both folk gentility and studio antisepsis. So praise Don Was for humanizing the control-freak production values she could never get on top of in the '70s. Another is her moral seriousness. So praise songwriters like John Hiatt, Bonnie Hayes, and maybe even Paul Brady for combining heft with hookcraft, and Shirley Eikhard, whoever she is, for "Something to Talk About," the slyest distillation of this rowdy Quaker's sexy ways since "Love Me Like a Man." But after that tell Raitt that no commercial reservation should ever torpedo a "Tangled and Dark," about a deep, long wrangle with love itself, or an "All at Once," about losing the teenage daughter she's never literally had. It's like the guitar she's afraid she hasn't properly mastered--she stops writing at the risk of her own intelligence, idiosyncrasy, and reality. A

Longing in Their Hearts [Capitol, 1994] Neither

Road Tested [Capitol, 1995]
Her supposed comeback in fact a breakthrough, she never approached gold back in the day, and hence was never big enough for a live album until now. This is lucky timing, because Grammy-era bland-out rarely dulls her concerts, where her roots-respectin' rockers come out raunchy, her tender ballads casually intimate. So even if you love Nick of Time, this two-CD mix of old songs and new illustrates why Raitt became an icon while Ronstadt turned into a gargoyle. She creates a world in which Bruce Hornsby and Bryan Adams project as much soul as Ruth Brown and Charles Brown. She's so free of ironic impurities she sings "Burning Down the House" as if it means one thing. And her parting words aren't "Take care of yourselves"--they're "Take care of each other." A-

Fundamental [Capitol, 1998]
I'd rest easier claiming this album sounds like middle-aged sex--creaky, caring, not shy about adjusting its groove--if it weren't for the other thing it sounds like, which is the debut album she cut with a bunch of folkie eccentrics when she was 21. So just say it sounds like Bonnie Raitt, old before her time as always. Songwise it's a little less consistent than Luck of the Draw, but now that Don Was has withdrawn there's finally some mess to go with her slide--Tchad Blake's kind of mess, in which junk is recycled into decor and everybody leaves coffee cups on the speaker cases. Some of them come from Starbucks. Some are straight out the vending machine. Some are Fiestaware originals. A-

Silver Lining [Capitol, 2002]
If on 1986's Nine Lives, the first bummer of a three-decade career divided by a cleaning-up period, she was a cynic at the end of her rope, on the second she's a self-remade woman calling the shots. As usual, the few songs she wrote herself outstrip the others. But even those are for roots-rock matures who share her worldview so narrowly that not a note or emotion takes her anywhere she doesn't know like her own night table. The exceptions are a single helping of Malian guitar from Habib Koite and, to an extent, a gospel rouser by Zimbabwean crossover darling Oliver Mtukudzi. More such tracks might have forced a stretch. Instead she starts off by warning the young against "dealing on the street." Somehow I don't think this is gonna win any war on drugs--or get her on TRL. B-

Slipstream [Redwing, 2012]
Bartholin's glands don't fail me now ("Used to Rule the World," "Million Miles") **

Just Like That . . . [Redwing, 2022]
It's the same old same old only if you think her traditionalist shtick is a lot mustier than it was when she invented it 50 years ago. I mean, there's an abundance of good songs here--songs with lyrics so rangy and specific that they render her fifth studio album of the century her best of the century. The two openers that chronicle love bereft and entranced like so many before them are covers this time, soon topped by the post-bereft Covid pledge "Livin' for the Ones" and a short short story in which Raitt assumes the role of a mother who opens her front door to the guy whose life was saved by the heart of the dead son she never stops mourning. Both these creations make it seem as if Raitt is missing John Prine even more than the rest of us, as does a finale sung in the voice of a murderer who finds some measure of redemption in the hospice ward of the prison he calls home. And then there's the blatantly autobiographical "Waitin' for You to Blow," where she rides shotgun on her fraught relationship with her own recovery. A-

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