Bonnie Raitt came into the making of Longing in Their Hearts riding a midlife hot streak that included two multiplatinum albums and seven Grammys. Suddenly, a career that had been stuck in neutral was blasting down the highway with the top down. Not only that, Raitt quit drinking, fell in love and got married. Life was good — could complacency be far behind? After all, Raitt had already plunged into the pain of going it alone on Nick of Time (1989) and the fear of free-falling into the love of a lifetime on Luck of the Draw (1991). What was left for her to sing about? And after twice returning to the stripped-down sound of her earlier albums with co-producer Don Was and engineer Ed Cherney, what more was left to be explored in her sound?
Turns out Raitt was just getting started, because Longing in Their Hearts is the furthest thing from a complacent album. Instead, it outdoes both Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw as a showcase for Raitt's talents as a singer, lyricist, musician and producer. It is a career album in every regard.
While she wrote a total of six songs for Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw, Raitt contributes five tracks to Longing in Their Hearts, and they are among the album's strongest. Her subject, as the album's title suggests, is the ambivalence that gnaws at even the most stable lives and relationships, the sometimes inexplicable yearning for something just out of reach.
On the title song, a couple makes "a pact, sealed with desire ... only to find it doesn't untie the knot where feelings die." On "Feeling of Falling," a woman longs to relive the first rush of "falling on over the ledge" with her lover, a desire echoed in "Cool, Clear Water": "I want to feel my earth turn over, baby/In this hardened winter ground."
The album also affirms that like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, Raitt is her own best accompanist. Her windwhipped slide guitar is the first sound the listener encounters, and her playing on a variety of instruments sets the emotional tone for virtually every track thereafter. That's her electric piano bringing out the melancholy of "Circle Dance" and her R&B organ washing over "Feeling of Falling." On the closing acoustic-blues number "Shadow of Doubt," she pounds the floorboard John Lee Hooker style and revisits the earthiness of her 1971 debut, Bonnie Raitt.
"Steal Your Heart Away," in contrast, is the album's sole false step, with its smoothed-out chorus and sheen all too reminiscent of Raitt's inconsequential midperiod albums. Otherwise, bassist James "Hutch" Hutchinson and drummer Ricky Fataar, holdovers from the previous Raitt-Was albums, put the singer in the pocket every time. With Raitt, they ramble like a seasoned band on the Memphis strut of "I Sho Do" and the finger-wagging "Hell to Pay."
Above all, it's Raitt's voice that makes Longing in Their Hearts such an end-to-end triumph. There's more bluesy grit than on any Raitt release since the '70s, and on a handful of ballads, she glows with hard-won grace. That's never more apparent than on the album's centerpiece, Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day." The poignancy of Thompson's lyric is masterful, but the vulnerable beauty of Raitt's voice is a miracle.