BONNIE RAITT: SWEET FORGIVENESS (1977)
1) About To Make Me Leave Home; 2) Runaway; 3) Two Lives; 4) Louise; 5) Gamblin' Man; 6) Sweet Forgiveness; 7) My Opening Farewell; 8) Three Time Loser; 9) Takin' My Time; 10) Home.
Produced by Rothchild once again, this one marked Raitt's first and lesser commercial peak, climbing all the way up to No. 25 on the charts and even yielding a modest hit single — her cover of Del Shannon's ʽRunawayʼ, a great song that, like most of the old hits back in 1977, was contemporarily out of vogue and could certainly use some twitching to get upgraded to the basic standards of commercial music in the 1970s. Right?
Well, maybe, but this harder-rocking arrangement is surprisingly soulless: neither the music nor Bonnie's «powerhouse» singing convey the light melancholy of the original that was its greatest asset — its essence, in fact. Melody-wise, ʽRunawayʼ is finely constructed, and that construction is dutifully preserved and just a little bit tweaked on this album, but on an emotional level, it does not really work as a loud «rock-and-soul» number: as it opens with a harsh distorted chugging riff and a swampy harmonica blast, your senses prepare for something dark and apocalyptic rather than something tender and personal. Bonnie's vocal work is technically great, but makes little sense — strong enough to make people sit up and notice and buy the single, though.
On the whole, Sweet Forgiveness is more «rock» than anything she previously offered us — perhaps the idea was to try and recast her a little bit in the vein of successful sentimental arena-rockers like Foreigner. The session musicians have largely been sacked — there's only about 15 different people credited on the record, which is really a miserable number (normally, there'd be about twice as many) for a Bonnie Raitt album, and even so, most of the instrumental parts were simply played by the members of her regular touring band, so the album on the whole is tighter, tenser, and rockier than it used to be. This is neither good nor bad in itself, but it does guarantee that there is no going back — the spirit of Sippie Wallace is no longer hovering over the studio in any of its forms.
The sheer strength of Raitt's voice means that she is perfectly capable of putting out a regular hard rock record — the only problem is that this particular hard rock record cannot boast great songwriting, and refuses to take any chances whatsoever when it comes to laying down the tracks. Something like ʽGamblin' Manʼ, for instance, is just standard-fare mid-tempo blues-rock, with neither the rhythm guitar nor the lead guitar nor any other part ever rising above the «we get paid for this, we're doing our job as honestly as the contract requires» level.
Composition-wise, the title track, written by songwriter Daniel Moore, is probably the most unusual thing here, spliced together from several different parts (a funky rocking part and a gospel-tinged uptempo ballad part) — even so, both parts are so tepid on their own that it is only the sharp contrast between the two, as Bonnie hops forward and backward from «aggressive» to «forgiving», that makes the final result worthwhile. Musical and emotional restraint, sometimes useful because implying certain things works better than saying them out loud, work against Raitt because there is really nothing implied here anyway. Slick and clean, ʽSweet Forgivenessʼ is a technically decent product that does not make me too angry or too forgiving.
Still, while the album is on, it's generally okay. The ballads have their little tugs (ʽTwo Livesʼ is kinda sad, though the Carpenters would probably have made it lovelier; ʽLouiseʼ is kinda sympathetic, though Joan Baez would probably have made it sharper and shriller), the rockers are superficially fun (ʽThree Time Loserʼ has an expressively flowing slide guitar part), and even slow «grand» roots-rock numbers like ʽTakin' My Timeʼ have a generally tasteful sound, decorated with pianos, organs, and battling guitars. The atmosphere of the whole thing, in any case, is much superior to the general arena-rock atmosphere, because nobody is trying to be too flashy, to lay down that old soul as if it were the biggest, fattest, most monumental soul of all time.
This is why, in spite of all the complaints, I'm still giving this a thumbs up — as I am usually doing with all «high quality mediocre albums». Do not, however, make the mistake of forming an opinion here based only on ʽRunawayʼ: it may be typical of the general style of arrangements on Sweet Forgiveness, but it is not typical of the general style of songwriting, and, most importantly, it will almost inevitably set your mind on the path of comparisons between Bonnie Raitt and Del Shannon, which is not at all what anybody had in mind for Sweet Forgiveness, I'm sure.