BONNIE RAITT: NICK OF TIME (1989)
1) Nick Of Time; 2) Thing Called Love; 3) Love Letter; 4) Cry On My Shoulder; 5) Real Man; 6) Nobody's Girl; 7) Have A Heart; 8) Too Soon To Tell; 9) I Will Not Be Denied; 10) I Ain't Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again; 11) The Road's My Middle Name.
Unlike Nine Lives, Nick Of Time could hardly be accused of «not being Bonnie Raitt». No, that's her all right — a balanced mix of «tough» blues and «soft» ballads, not exploring any weirdly unfamiliar territories, played by the usual army of professional roots-rock sidemen, and feeling as sincere as they come. So how to explain, in plain simple words of the English language, why it sucks so much that I'd rather have Nine Lives?..
Put it this way: there's something tremendously wrong in the air when a record like this tops the Billboard charts, sells five million copies, and gets all the Grammies. We can admit that in 1971-1973, back when Bonnie Raitt made her only records that are still worth relistening to on a constant basis, competition was way more tough, and what seemed like a mere blip on the radar then could aggrandize itself into something much more impressive in 1989, at least in the antiquated world of «traditional» rock'n'roll. But even then, there were so many «traditional rock'n'roll» albums in 1989 that could have made the same grade — why Nick Of Time?
Admittedly, the record gave Bonnie Raitt a new face. The singles mostly charted as «adult contemporary», and the whole thing was strongly marketed as an emotionally charged record for aging baby-boomers — no way any of the kids could get interested in these songs. In a couple of years, the same strategy would work with Eric Clapton's Unplugged: calm, steady, «wise» music for those old rockers who had no wish to pretend they were young any more, and preferred the quiet, slow-burning sounds of Clapton and Bonnie Raitt to the «eternally young» sounds of the Rolling Stones, perceived as fake and strained. There must have been a strong demand for this among the elders who were too tired to keep on searching — «nick of time» indeed.
But this lack of innovation, this desire to settle down and do something simple and honest, this «graceful acceptance of age» — who ever said it all had to come with such poor packaging? Producer Don Was, who would soon become a major provider for rock veterans (the Stones, Dylan, Ringo Starr, Joe Cocker, etc.), gives Raitt the slickest production she ever had — yes, he is a magnificent master of sound, polishing, scrubbing, and disinfecting each note until it glitters like fake gold on a piece of pseudo-antique furniture. The keyboards, which dominate all the ballads and even some of the blues-rock numbers, are those modern (well, for 1989) synthesizers and electric pianos that never had any soul to begin with, glossy and boring like everything else; the guitars, always kept in strict check, give the impression of being pre-programmed; and the voice... well, the thing about Bonnie's voice, which has changed very little since the early days, is that most of the time it blended into the surroundings, and usually sounded exactly as good as the non-vocal instrumentation. Nick Of Time is no exception.
These songs aren't even «bad» per se — except maybe for the biggest hit, ʽHave A Heartʼ, whose robotic reggae rhythms are only the second worst thing after the chorus (each time she sings "hey, hey, have a heart!", I cannot instinctively understand if we are being implored for human mercy or if we are being offered a delicacy in a brand new restaurant opened up by cannibals). Some are even catchy, although that catchiness never ventures beyond the safe walls of predictable blues patterns, and the blues-and-ballads formula is strictly observed, the two main-and-only mottos being «don't mess around with tough mamas» and «tough mamas have broken hearts, too». Lack of taste, good sense, or adequacy is no good grounds for whipping out a subpoena — taken to court, Nick Of Time would have you roasted in return and paying all expenses.
But oh man, is it ever simply boring. «Lifeless» — no. There is plenty of life in that voice, it's just that it is an altogether uninteresting life, and I have no idea who could be emotionally entangled in it. These arrangements, where you have musicians forcefully restraining themselves so as not to break out of the «easy listening» mold — yes, songs like ʽI Will Not Be Deniedʼ and ʽReal Manʼ could have turned the spark into flame, if they'd let the former develop some instrumental fury and the latter a sloppy-drunk aura, but no: word of the day is «sterilized», or there'd be no chance for a Grammy.
Even as somebody who is inevitably drifting closer to mid-age, and has an open attitude towards many records that may have seemed dull and plodding at 20, but take on new life as we get older, I cannot see myself ever cherishing an album like Nick Of Time, not even on any sort of deathbed. Clapton's Unplugged was really a different thing — a successful attempt to pour out some soul in a masterful series of acoustic reinventions, and it worked. Nick Of Time brings nothing new to the table except for gloss, calculation, and uninspired smoothness that tries to pass itself off as «experience».
Unfortunately, its commercial success, surpassing Bonnie's wildest expectations and making her into a household name after two decades of hanging on the fringes, would guarantee, iron will and all, that she'd pretty much spend the rest of her career trying to remake this album, over and over and over again. No, it is not the worst fate imaginable — Rod Stewart or even Clapton himself, with embarrassing attempts at «modernization» like Pilgrim, would produce plenty of «unlistenable» stuff — but sometimes you wonder what is really worse: go for total stiff «preservation», or try and change with the flow, even if this is done for obviously commercial purposes. As far as ratings are concerned, though, this is a fickle opposition: all things are equal in a thumbs down judgement.