To some degree, you know what you’re getting with a Bonnie Raitt album, post 1989’s Grammy-winning Nick of Time. A slick studio portrait on the cover, and a solid collection of adult contemporary blues-rock with songs of love, lust and longing, including at least a couple of heart-worn breakup ballads.
It’s all not too rough around the edges, yet not too smooth either. Because that’s just it with Raitt; no matter how far down the line she is from the wide-eyed young blues acolyte who recorded her first album way back in 1971 at the age of 22, there’s still a soulful grit and spark in her vocals and guitar playing that belies the years or any concessions to commerciality on the way.
With her latest, Dig in Deep, she has indeed dug in deeper, polishing and perfecting what she does so well, and sounding like she’s still enjoying it as much as in those early years. She even throws a curveball on this one, with a totally reworked version of INXS’s 1987 hit “Need You Tonight”, which removes the jangle and amps up the sultriness, bringing the song’s R&B groove more to the fore, as well as showcasing her killer slide guitar playing.
“Need You Tonight” is one of seven songs on the album written by others, which is actually a less than normal number for Raitt (neither of her two previous albums included any songs penned by her). She’s in a creative period these days, though, and the five tracks she wrote or co-wrote easily stand with the rest.
Lead track “Unintended Consequence of Love”, a co-write with pianist Jon Cleary , is not, as the title suggests, a teen pregnancy warning but deals with middle-age concerns, specifically a long-time couple trying to rekindle the romance in their relationship. Raitt sings about finding “a way to resurrect our strut”, and the funky groove the band lays down under her confident and fiery vocals points the way.
Bonnie Bishop, a favorite songwriter of Raitt’s, contributed “Not ‘Cause I Wanted To” to Raitt’s previous album Slipstream. That song won a Grammy, and Raitt’s recorded another bittersweet Bishop ballad, “Undone”, for Dig In Deep. “Undone” and the last two tracks, Joe Henry’s “You’ve Changed My Mind” and her own “The Ones We Couldn’t Be”, are tender, delicate ballads possessed of an inner strength. On a mostly high energy album, these tracks are offset and so shine a bit more brightly than they may have otherwise. “The Ones We Couldn’t Be” is an especially poignant solo piano ballad which deals with regret and the deaths of her parents and brother over the last few years.
“Gypsy in Me” is the first single, and it recalls the road life wanderlust lyrics of her earlier “The Road’s My Middle Name”, from that aforementioned career landmark Nick of Time. Aided by her crackerjack band, the song is a steady, thumping blues and shows that she’s not slowing down one bit. One of the most dependable artists of her generation, the road and the music are linked indelibly to Bonnie Raitt’s identity. And we’re all the better for it.