In 1989, Bonnie Raitt had a huge hit and subsequent Grammy sweep with the album “Nick of Time,” which movingly spoke to the ways that love can creep up and save a person in middle age.
Nearly a quarter-century later, on the terrific “Slipstream,” Raitt seems to have a different, somewhat more bemused perspective on love and/or aging, as if to address what happens when all those good things that arrived just in the nick of time disappear just as fatefully.
In the album-opening “Used to Rule the World" (written by Randall Bramlett), a bevy of has-beens consider their diminished place in the state of things and wonder where their status went. If it sounds tragic in theory, the Steely Dan-like funk rhythms and Raitt’s playful slide guitar make it clear there’s something at least a little funny about human outrage at the natural order of diminishing returns. It may not rule the Grammys, but once again, Raitt has come up with an anthem for a generation.
If “Used to Rule the World” is a sort of answer song to “Nick of Time,” so is “Not Cause I Wanted To,” an answer song to her classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” This time, in a ballad written by NRBQ’s Al Anderson and Bonnie Bishop, she’s singing from the point of view of the one who couldn’t be made to love, with a “guilty heart and a troubled mind” and a sense that even the other person’s “forgiveness ain’t enough to wash my conscience clean.” Bonnie Raitt, cad? It kind of works.
There are lighter moments throughout — Raitt is not about to give up being America’s slippery-guitar-necked good-time gal, nor should she – but it’s the more rueful stuff that sticks.
She covers two Bob Dylan songs, and they’re both from 1997’s “Time Out of Mind,” his most depressing album (the one we all thought at the time might be some kind of grim valedictory statement). Of course Raitt’s honeyed tones can’t help but loosen the noose in these songs just a little, but she’s got good taste in her baldly lovelorn Bob. Having her cover “Time Out of Mind” from start to finish wouldn’t be a bad idea, actually.
The Dylan covers are among four acoustic-based tracks produced by Joe Henry, remnants of early sessions that Raitt did for the album before deciding on a change of direction. She figured the Joe Henry stuff was just too downbeat to come back with after a seven-year layoff, so she plans to release an entire album of those sessions later, after the public has become re-accustomed to her face with this mixed-moods comeback.
She was wise to do that, because as good as she is at breaking your heart, you’d be really heartbroken to get a new Raitt album free of slide guitar and levity. Don Was is no longer behind the boards, and there are no John Hiatt songs, but you’ll definitely hear a revival of the irresistibly lurching “Thing Called Love” sound in greasy new numbers like “Down to You,” “Ain’t Gonna Let You Go,” and the superior “Split Decision.”
“Slipstream” really does represent a split decision, between the quiet, singer/songwriter-ly anguish of the Joe Henry-produced tracks and the Greek Theater-ready rockers penned by Al Anderson and other bluesy compatriots. Happily, this combination of musical approaches doesn’t feel schizoid. In Raitt’s hands, it’s all chicken soup for the middle-aged-rocker soul, if not a balm in Gilead.