We gave it an A
Before Bonnie Raitt surprised even herself by winning four Grammys this year, she’d had an always-a-bridesmaid career. Musicians loved her, and her albums sold respectably. But she never had the giant hit her fans thought she deserved.
The Grammys gave her that hit: After Raitt’s quadruple victory, her 1989 Capitol album, Nick of Time, climbed belatedly to the top of the charts. Her success also may have spurred interest in her earlier work — or at least that’s the commercial rationale behind The Bonnie Raitt Collection, for which Raitt herself chose 20 songs from the nine albums she recorded between 1971 and 1986.
But forget commerce; this compendium justifies itself by its quality. It reveals Raitt first as a 21-year-old blues singer, performing songs with titles like ”Finest Lovin’ Man” in an aching, pure voice. But already she was adding depth and, often, sadness to what she sang. In her adaptation of a blues number called ”Love Me Like a Man,” she had already begun what these songs seem to document: a lifelong search for a man who trusts himself enough to love her without putting her down.
By 1973 she’s singing ”Guilty,” a Randy Newman tune about two things well known to have been problems in Raitt’s life: drinking and drugs. The music is structured like a ’60s soul ballad Otis Redding might have sung. Raitt can’t sear a listener’s heart with Redding’s burning power; instead, she floats through the song in a cloud of self-destructive melancholy that’s equally impressive, from the simple opening admission, ”Yes, baby, I’ve been drinkin’,” to her final cry that she can’t stand herself.
Meanwhile, the production of Raitt’s records was getting more complex. By 1975, in ”My First Night Alone Without You,” she was even backed by strings. Her 1977 remake of Del Shannon’s ”Runaway” (the closest she ever came to a hit single) approaches straight-down-the-line mainstream rock; ”The Glow,” her 1979 revisit to the subject of drinking, is arranged like an old pop standard, glowing with a late-night sheen of elegant jazz guitar.
For some fans — blues purists, especially — the commercial polish of songs like ”The Glow” marked the artistic bottom of Raitt’s career. But there’s only one song in the collection with no character at all: It’s Raitt’s concluding choice, ”No Way to Treat a Lady” from her 1986 album Nine Lives, in which her voice gets lost in music hard to distinguish from other brawny rock songs that never quite stuck in anyone’s memory.
That’s a curious way for Raitt to end a compilation of personal favorites. Though maybe she’s being brutally honest; by 1986, her career had begun a temporary downhill spiral. Honesty suits her, in any case. It’s one of the many shining virtues of her singing, which one weak song can hardly diminish. A