The thing about Linda Ronstadt is that she keeps getting better, and we keep expecting more and more of her. She’s always possessed that big, magnanimous voice, but it wasn’t until Heart like a Wheel that her interpretive and arranging skills (the latter, and perhaps both, due to the felicitous pairing with producer Peter Asher) fully emerged.
With Hasten Down the Wind, Ronstadt shed some long-lived inhibitions. Given Karla Bonoff’s red-hot, baldly emotional material (“Someone to Lay Down beside Me,” “Lose Again,” “If He’s Ever Near”), she responded with her most personal — even visceral — singing. It doesn’t quite make sense to call her highly charged performances relaxed, but certainly she was a lot less stiff than before. Ronstadt had, quite simply, become rock’s supreme torch singer.
What Ronstadt’s blossoming skills suggest is a kind of latter-day Billie Holiday, a woman whose singing constitutes an almost otherworldly triumph over the worst kind of chronic pain. Throughout Simple Dreams (in which Ronstadt and Asher wisely have scaled down the production), the singer evokes a bittersweet world of disappointments, fantasies and cheerfully brazen assertions. What she lacks is the sense of humor and ironic self-effacement that made Holiday such an extraordinarily subtle and intelligent performer.
That flaw, which was most obvious in Ronstadt’s sober reading of Randy Newman’s outlandish “Sail Away,” is evident here on Warren Zevon’s darkly ironic “Carmelita.” When Ronstadt, going to meet a dealer, sings, “He hangs out down on Alvarado Street/At the Pioneer Chicken stand” without even a smirk, it sounds as if she doesn’t know that a joke, however black, is being made.
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And all the way through Simple Dreams’ first side (which, except for the rousing opener, “It’s So Easy,” is made up of ballads), Ronstadt fails to step back and take a look at herself. She’s just a little too blue for comfort. But that’s a piddling complaint because it’s a fine side. Ronstadt sings J.D. Souther’s modestly self-pitying “Simple Man, Simple Dream” with a thorough sympathy for and understanding of Souther’s message — that the lover of simple truths is easily ridiculed. She gets Eric Kaz’ complex “Sorrow Lives Here” (Kaz, it seems, is getting ready to challenge Leonard Cohen as the world’s most morose songwriter) just right. The lines “Everything seems to spin all around/But I can’t see/Whether it happens/With or without me” unite emotional and philosophical confusion dramatically, and Ronstadt sings them as if she wrote them. “I Never Will Marry,” the great traditional tune to which Dolly Parton’s backwoods harmonies add a gorgeous dignity, should become her signature: it frames her independence and loneliness with enormous restraint and power.
Simple Dreams’ second side is better paced and begins with the song, “Blue Bayou,” that caused me to compare Ronstadt to Billie Holiday. The transition she makes from the introduction to the chorus (“I’m going back some day, come what may to Blue Bayou”) is simply electrifying. What starts out as an ordinary love song becomes a passionate cry for escape that completely transcends the song. Like Holiday, Ronstadt has developed an ability to invest her material with far more than it brings to her — the wonderful jump to falsetto with which she ends “Blue Bayou” is a great deal more than merely wistful.
Simple Dreams could have used more rockers like the second side’s “Tumbling Dice” and Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” Both are strongly male, and Ronstadt’s substitution of a female presence (something that occurs throughout the LP and serves as a sort of subtheme) is a joyous “anything you can do” statement. She moves through Zevon’s role reversals convincingly, substituting a nicely assonant verse for a more graphic one that she might not have gotten away with.
Ronstadt’s well-placed grittiness on “Tumbling Dice” (whose brilliant, highly salty lyrics are finally intelligible) matches the song’s sense of risk and its keenly expressed bawdiness. “Tumbling Dice” might seem a strange choice of material for Ronstadt, but what she’s telling us, I think, is that she can live on the edge with the best of them. And she’s damned convincing.