Why should Bonnie Raitt merit our “sweet forgiveness” any longer? Her newest album, though pleasant in spots, is in the end deeply frustrating. The promise in work like Give It Up has been squandered through lack of direction and inspiration. The hallmarks of that LP — distinctive instrumental settings and fills, an ear for the great song and, most of all, a delightfully insouciant yet authoritative style — have been turned on their heads in Sweet Forgiveness.
Raitt’s albums have increasingly predicted this. Bright new songwriters have not been found, so the lesser material of Jackson Browne (his lovely but hard-to-interpret “My Opening Farewell”) or songs poorly suited to Raitt’s abilities (“Runaway,” the LP’s severest embarrassment, and Paul Siebel’s moralistic “Louise”) are supposed to suffice.
Even worse, when Raitt has a forceful tune to work with — Earl Randall’s spicy “About to Make Me Leave Home” and Eric Kaz’ “Gamblin’ Man” are two — her vocal approach is so stilted, so affectedly guttural and contralto that we have a hard time remembering what it was we once liked about her singing.
Sorely missed also are the musicianly interactions that used to occur on nearly every track. Raitt’s flawless intuitions used to goose her accompanists into new licks and patterns (has John Hall ever bettered his playing on Give It Up?). Now she’s abandoned her flowing naturalness for a plodding roughness which, unfortunately, matches producer Paul Rothchild’s singular lack of imagination.
Bonnie Raitt is simply too talented to make an awful album. Perhaps, though, that easy avenue to success has inhibited Raitt’s understanding of what she must do to be better. And she can be better than this.