Nick Of Time

Nick of Time, Bonnie Raitt's tenth album, is a strong if surprisingly conservative offering.

Amid a horde of female vocalists who've walked the tightrope between commercialism and a more ambitious artistic intent since the Seventies, Raitt has consistently proven the most talented and intelligent. Her ability to turn a phrase and invest lyrics with emotion — especially an unadorned sexuality — makes her the valedictorian in a class that includes more successful contemporaries like Linda Ronstadt.

But despite all that talent, Raitt has yet to succeed at either selling out or making the album that once and for all sets her apart as a great and original artist. With material provided by the likes of Jackson Browne, John Hall and Randy Newman, Raitt's albums took on a connect-the-dots formula, the songs on each virtually interchangeable with tracks on preceding recordings.

Part of the promise of Nick of Time is the teaming with producer Don Was. His own band, Was (Not Was), is bright and slyly subversive, and his production of Raitt on the recent Disney compilation Stay Awake resulted in one of that album's few honest readings. But while Nick of Time is Raitt's best-sounding album, it doesn't quite succeed at breaking the mold.

The seeds of change are in evidence: Nick of Time's title track is a cleareyed Raitt original that deals unsentimentally with the tricky subject of approaching middle age. But what follows is more predictable — John Hiatt and Bonnie Hayes are among the anointed songwriters of the moment, and songs like ''Nobody's Girl,'' ''Real Man'' and ''The Road's My Middle Name'' fit so comfortably into the predictable parameters of the singer's previous recordings that they seem conscious duplications. After a strong start, the album wears thin. For almost any other pop singer, Nick of Time would be a solid victory. For Raitt, who is clearly capable of being great, it is another beautiful near miss.