When I say welcome back, don't think of John Sebastian's awful song, or the equally awful television show it introduces. Think instead of a gifted singer — perhaps our most gifted — who has given us (arguably, I admit) some 40 memorable songs but failed, and miserably so, to connect with much passion on her last album, Prisoner in Disguise.
This is Linda Ronstadt's tenth album (including the three made with her first group, the Stone Poneys). While it is certainly not in a league with her masterpiece, Heart like a Wheel (and I'm beginning to believe its perfection occurs but once in an artist's career), Hasten down the Wind is nonetheless representative of Ronstadt redivivus, of Ronstadt, the sensitive, introspective stirring we have admired all these years.
Aside from the inclusion of two innocuous songs — "Lo Siento Mi Vida" and Karla Bonoff's "If He's Ever Near" — the album's problems are fairly well exemplified by the totally wrongheaded interpretation of the Warren Zevon-penned title song, which delineates the chilling tale of a lover's indecisiveness. In the original version, stinging, venomous guitar lines plus ethereal guitar solos accentuated Zevon's weary vocal. Here, strings and Andrew Gold's impersonal piano accompaniment take the song all the way out of the danger zone, and Ronstadt's carefully articulated, stodgy vocal belies her misunderstanding. When she is joined on the chorus by Don Henley (of the Eagles) the impact of the song's touching and mystifying lyric is completely blunted by the beauty of the harmonizing.
The album's only other major mistake is John and Johanna Hall's "Give One Heart," one of the worst songs — reggae or otherwise — I've heard. Orleans couldn't salvage it, nor can Ronstadt. No amount of sweetening can rescue lyrics as inane as "That's the paradox of I love you" or "If your baby loves you right/You can have skyrockets any old night." A rock & roll bridge has been punched up, which only makes things worse by forcing a scream from Ronstadt as she tries to move up the scale. Worse still, one verse of an immaculately beautiful reggae song, "Rivers of Babylon," is ruined by being used as a prelude to "Give One Heart."
Otherwise the album is in good shape. And in a few instances it's as good as anything Ronstadt has done.
I've always appreciated Ronstadt's good-natured approach to her remakes of rock 'n' roll oldies. The version of "That'll Be the Day" included here neither alters my feelings for nor threatens the Buddy Holly original. Her reading could be tougher, but the music behind it — particularly the solo sparring between guitarists Andrew Gold and Waddy Wachtel — has enough bite to overcome the vocal shortcomings.
Ry Cooder's "The Tattler" is one of the album's two gems. Swirling electric piano figures and a barely audible mandolin establish an irresistibly exotic ambiance. Ronstadt's interpretation is extraordinarily subtle, sly and witty. She sounds at peace with herself as she sings of foolish lovers who don't take the time to discover love's true meaning. She doesn't battle the instruments; she doesn't strain for high notes. She simply allows the beauty of this well-structured song to speak for itself.
Ultimately, there is the Ronstadt-Gold song, "Try Me Again." As in "Love Has No Pride" and "Long Long Time," something precious is at stake here. The song's theme summons from Ronstadt myriad emotions; midway through the first verse, she is befuddled — not yet wanting to admit what is going on in her life:
Lately I ain't been feelin' right
And I don't know the cure, no
Still I can't keep from wonderin'
If I still figure in your life
Realization and abject resignation in the second verse turn into frustration by the third ("When you say you tried/And you know you lied/My hands are tied"), which elicits the final, desperate plea of the title.
Near the end of the song, Gold hammers out angry piano chords beneath Dan Dugmore's sorrowful steel guitar lines, then comes back with a powerful guitar solo that is the instrumental topping for the quintessential Ronstadt performance.
Willie Nelson's "Crazy," an inspired choice, follows. After the tumult of "Try Me Again," "Crazy" is rather a boozy coda; a "what the hell, you gotta give love a try" barroom ballad that is lighthearted and loose enough for Ronstadt to falter on the last line without destroying the mood.
This isn't Heart like a Wheel. But it is, despite its flaws, a fine album that begs closer inspection than, I fear, many of us are willing to give to Linda Ronstadt's art. Like the best moments of the preceding nine, though, the best moments of Hasten down the Wind will be with us a long, long time.
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