Prisoner in Disguise is an attempt to re-create the enormous critical and commercial success of Ronstadt’s 1974 album, Heart like a Wheel. Unfortunately, while every choice on the previous album seemed inspired, these are largely pedestrian. As a parallel work, Prisoner operates at a distinct disadvantage to Heart; track by track, it is thoroughly and transparently inferior.
Part of the problem is Ronstadt’s voice, a truly remarkable instrument which she has never learned to control. Ronstadt’s long suit has never been her skill as an interpreter — she is easily capable of misunderstanding even so straightforward a lyric as “Tracks of My Tears” — and, where Peter Asher and Andrew Gold’s arrangements on the earlier album made up for her failures of comprehension, here, on a much more difficult set of songs, they simply can’t compensate.
The most striking disparity is between the two old rock hits she chose to cover on Heart, the hit singles “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved,” and the pair she has selected here. Unlike the others, neither “Tracks of My Tears” nor “Heat Wave” is particularly well suited to Ronstadt’s trembling, country-inflected soprano. Her reading of “Tracks”‘s marvelous lyric is somnambulant, her “Heat Wave” taken far too fast — it borders on hysteria. And the latter is burdened with a purposeless male chorus, as are several other tracks.
But even on material which is better suited to her voice, Ronstadt fails. For instance, her country classic for Prisoner is Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which is neither easy to sing (as was Hank Williams’s “I Can’t Help It [If I’m Still in Love with You]” on the earlier album) nor unidentified with another singer’s version. Ronstadt and Parton have similar voices and Ronstadt likes to play that up, but she lacks the distinctiveness of Parton’s upper range. Similarly, while Ronstadt turned in a first-rate performance on Lowell George’s renegade country classic “Willin'” on Wheel, she fills the niche here with his notably inferior “Roll Um Easy.”
Of all the songs which directly parallel others on Heart, only J.D. Souther’s title song is superior to his earlier effort. It is one of two extremely successful tracks, the other being Neil Young’s simple chant, “Love Is a Rose.” On both of these, she manages to catch the spirit. On songs which require more introspection, however, she is hopelessly at sea. It is difficult to imagine a more thorough misinterpretation than her “Many Rivers to Cross,” but then, it is difficult to imagine anything sillier than Ronstadt singing reggae in the first place.
Although the success of Heart like a Wheel seemed to contradict it, my strongest impression of Linda Ronstadt, after hearing Prisoner in Disguise, is that she has a great voice and almost no idea of what to do with it. It’s time for her producer and arranger to come up with a new approach.