Linda Ronstadt’s voice has never sounded better than it does on Get Closer. It’s an uneven album, to be sure, but its spirit is unassailable. Ronstadt’s ringing soprano vibrates with clarity and authority on the record’s best songs, and sometimes she uses her voice like a daring rock & roller: she yells until it hurts your ears. Her tone has lost its mewling self-pity, and her phrasing is both sensible and sly.
Ronstadt spent time last year testing her vocal cords against a zippy production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, and it proved to be an ideal role for her. As Mabel, Ronstadt was allowed to act innocent and dreamy, yet strong-willed and passionate. The part seems to have filled her with confidence and energy, and although Get Closer glistens with the rippling musculature of her now formally exercised voice, her new strength hasn’t made her self-conscious. Just the opposite, in fact: Linda Ronstadt is no longer a prisoner of technique.
“Want love? Get closer,” snaps Ronstadt in the opening words of the title song, which kicks off the album. “Get Closer” has a crabby verve that’s new in Ronstadt’s repertoire. Here and elsewhere, there’s an invigorating vocal vulgarity that she hasn’t displayed since 1970’s Silk Purse. On “Get Closer,” she demands affection from her lover instead of begging for it, while the guitars of Andrew Gold, Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel — the holy trinity of L.A. rock — roar and bellow behind her. “Get Closer” is meant to be a slap in the ears, and it is.
Once she has our attention, though, Ronstadt settles into what she does best: wringing all the sentiment imaginable from a series of stately ballads. These include two of Jimmy Webb’s teary epics, “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” and “Easy for You to Say.” Ronstadt navigates these sudsy ballads admirably, and it’s a testament to the mesmeric power of her voice that she enables you to ignore the lyrics. It’s the tune caught between the two Webbs, however — Joe South’s “I Knew You When” — that allows Ronstadt to demonstrate her vocal technique most spectacularly. The song begins at the very peak of passion, with Ronstadt yelling “Yeah! yeah! yeah!…” at maximum volume, and then swoops down to a lower register to make a series of accusations to a sap who’s jilted her. This is blatant, showoff stuff, of course, but it’s braggadocio so well executed that it’s irresistibly thrilling. The only so-so performance on the first side of Get Closer is “Talk to Me of Mendocino,” in which Ronstadt’s crisp, straightforward reading of a hopelessly corny yet ineffably beautiful Kate McGarrigle song comes off as rather listless — sincere but uninspired.
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Turn Get Closer over and prepare yourself for dismay, because Ronstadt almost blows it. The second side gets off to a dizzying high, as Ronstadt and producer Peter Asher goose James Taylor to life in a fast, prickly duet on the vintage soul classic “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.” After Roderick Taylor’s “Mr. Radio” — a pretty tune she sings with no particular feeling — Ronstadt makes two errors in pop-oldies selection: the Knickerbockers’ mid-Sixties slam-bash, “Lies,” and the Exciters’ girl-group raveup, “Tell Him.” Both songs are fast paced and tartly performed, but since the point of the originals was rabid, dithering silliness, applying such meticulous premeditation to her cover versions cancels out any sense of fun or adventure.
As if to remind us of how far she’s come, Ronstadt concludes Get Closer with “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win,” which was recorded in 1977, and “My Blue Tears,” a Dolly Parton tune sung by Ronstadt, Parton and Emmylou Harris in 1978 and most likely intended for the aborted LP the trio had planned. These songs contain all the flaws of mid-period Ronstadt: the blind bleat, the popified country croon, the elongation of syllables for dramatic effect.
My advice: make your own great, five-star Linda Ronstadt minialbum out of Get Closer. Tape all of side one and add side two’s “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.” Listen to that, and you’ll get closer to what Linda Ronstadt is all about these days. More power to her.