On her newest album Bonnie Raitt, one of the most gifted contemporary pop interpreters, partially succeeds in coping with uncongenial production by Jerry Ragovoy. The uneven results illustrate an important record industry problem: How are artists to deal with a sophisticated production technology that dictates the creation of flawlessly manufactured commercial “product” and tends to disallow the idiosyncratic, spontaneous and simple? Increasingly, the outcome is a bland MOR slickness that depersonalizes an artist’s vocal quality and undermines the character of a song.
Ragovoy’s production, while it sets off Raitt’s voice as a beautiful artifact, fails to exploit her great strength as a blues singer. Joni Mitchell’s “That Song about the Midway” and James Taylor’s “Rainy Day Man” emerge as high-quality schlock ballads, either perfect or perfectly boring. More successful are John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” and Bill Payne’s “Streetlights,” both of which Raitt animates, despite their overly polished sound settings. Raitt fares best in the bluesier songs — Ragovoy’s own “Ain’t Nobody Home,” Lou Courtney’s “You Got To Be Ready for Love” and Allen Toussaint’s cynical “What Is Success.” The last, one of Raitt’s finest recorded performances, is the only cut in which she tears loose and shows her ability as an R&B interpreter.
The apparent intention behind Streetlights is to broaden Raitt’s commercial appeal, to make her a superstar a la Roberta Flack. I hope the plan succeeds, so that Raitt will have the option to record her next album in a garage, singing the blues against her own slide guitar and a small rhythm section, and still sell millions. One of the many pleasures of Bonnie Raitt’s previous records, a pleasure that can be even more fully appreciated in live performance, is a shared sense of fun. While Raitt demonstrates impressive technical ability on Streetlights, she doesn’t sound like she’s having a good time.