Winter Light marks a turning point in Linda Ronstadt's career: It's the singer's first pop album since Heart Like a Wheel (1974) not produced by longtime mentor Peter Asher. Instead, Ronstadt has chosen to produce the album herself, along with George Massenburg, and the result is the most personal disc the singer has ever done. Not as slick as her work with Asher, Winter Light shows off a freer, less processed Ronstadt, one more interested in emotional expression than technical proficiency. Strangely, her voice has never sounded so imperfect — or so good.
The way Ronstadt turns Anna McGarrigle's meditative "Heartbeats Accelerating" into a tortured cry of obsession is almost shocking. "Love, love, where can you be?" she sings in hushed tones, as a synthesizer marks time like a ticking clock. Then, unable to contain her desire, Ronstadt voices her impatience with a gloriously undisciplined howl: "Will you come on a Saturday night?/Maybe then the time will be right." Similarly, on the old Dionne Warwick chestnut "Anyone Who Had a Heart," Ronstadt lets her breathy voice build into a soaring but nervously uncertain request for a lover's kindness, climaxing in a rock-gospel chorus that gives the song a larger, more spiritual dimension. Nowhere does Ronstadt sound more exhilarated to be able to sing anyway she feels than on Bacharach and David's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself." Moving from cooing innocence to groaning misery, Ronstadt delivers a relationship's worth of delicious melodrama in three minutes.
As a producer, Ronstadt occasionally misfires, as on Brian Wilson's "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)." The song lacks a strong melody to begin with, but Robbie Buchanan's churchlike synthesizer turns it into a dirge. Overall, though, Ronstadt is becoming more confident behind the board, with Winter Light boasting a more sculptured sound than she achieved in her work with David Lindley and Aaron Neville. But as with any Ronstadt album, the main reason to listen to this recording is that voice, an instrument that for years has been enslaved by overly self-conscious production values. It may have taken almost 20 years, but this songbird has finally found a way out of her cage.