It would be perfectly reasonable to expect a bliss-drenched feel-good album from Bonnie Raitt at this point in her life and career. After nearly twenty years as a critics’ and musicians’ favorite, she finally earned commercial success and industry recognition in 1989 with Nick of Time, and after overcoming a series of personal hardships, she settled into a secure relationship, marrying actor Michael O’Keefe. Given all that, Raitt would have been entitled to make the follow-up to Nick of Time a uniformly uplifting testament to her New-Found Contentment.
Instead, Raitt has recorded Luck of the Draw, a collection of pensive and often bittersweet new songs that, like its predecessor, draws on the pop savvy of producer Don Was (who coproduces with Raitt this time) — and the support of an impressive array of guest musicians and song-writers — to sharpen and polish her earthy hybrid of blues, country and R&B. At its peaks, though, Luck evokes epiphanies that are richer and more poignant than Time‘s sensible, adult ruminations on living and learning. Where Raitt’s previous album was mature and spirited, her new one is tender and insightful; tempering pathos with the feisty courage that has helped bring her to this point, Raitt sings about the ways in which life instills cynicism and how she struggles resolutely not to succumb to it.
Luck of the Draw starts off cheerfully enough with “Something to Talk About,” a catchy, endearing come-on to a male friend on the brink of becoming something more. “It took a rumor to make me wonder/Now I’m convinced I’m going under,” Raitt sings, her whiskey-laced mezzo-soprano opening up like a sly, playful grin. Her voice, a little less sweet than it was in the Seventies but handsomely seasoned and agile, has been most emotive in recent years; age and experience have endowed Raitt with a subtlety and an effortless emotional authority reminiscent of the great soul singers, as well as the blues legends she emulated in her youth. Her singing has also never sounded sexier, whether she’s sliding into the ingratiating chorus of “Slow Ride” or warning, over the lithe reggae rhythms of “Come to Me,” that “I don’t need another well-spent night…. I wanna look my baby in the eye/And know there’s nothing left to chance.”
Even in its lighter moments — “Good Man, Good Woman,” a cheeky duet with Delbert McClinton, and “Not the Only One,” a graceful ode to redeeming love penned by Paul Brady — Luck of the Draw is often haunted by a strong sense of past heartbreak, alluding either directly or implicitly to scars left by disappointment and betrayal. On “No Business,” a sturdy John Hiatt contribution that benefits from Raitt’s characteristically supple slide-guitar playing, she sings, “I kept track of all the love that I gave him/And on paper it looked pretty good/He left a note that said he couldn’t stay here/As if I could.” “One Part Be My Lover,” a gentle ballad co-written with O’Keefe, suggests the wariness of a new couple slowly learning to put aside memories of previous romantic failings: “They’re gonna need all the help they can get/They remember too much about what went wrong/It might be they should learn to forget.”
Luck of the Draw is at its most moving, however, on its other ballads. A few of today’s more ostentatious pop divas would do well to study Raitt’s gorgeously understated rendering of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” in which sentiments such as “I will lay down my heart and I’ll feel the power/But you won’t” are delivered with a quiet resignation that’s worth a hundred glissandi in emotional weight. The sublime title track, written by Brady and featuring Richard Thompson’s chiming guitar fills and Brady and Thompson’s glowing harmonies, uses the plight of a struggling screenwriter to reflect on the things we all do “to keep the flame burn-in’/And write our fire in the sky.” “Forget those movies you saw, little baby,” Raitt advises, her voice somewhere between a chuckle and a sigh, “… Sometimes it’s good to lose your pride.”
But nowhere is Raitt’s grasp of human vulnerability more palpable or affecting than on “All at Once,” a first-person account — penned by Raitt herself — of a lonely single mother clinging to memories and hopeless dreams. “Let me know there’s some place left for me,” she pleads at first, as warm, dark strings swell behind her, but by the final verse she is rapidly losing heart: “They say women, we’re the stronger…. Hell, that ain’t how I feel right now…. Why the angels turn their backs on some/Is just a mystery to me.” For Raitt to be voicing thoughts like these with such simple eloquence and conviction, even as angels flock to her doorstep, makes her success seem all the more richly deserved, more than merely the luck of the draw.