Over the course of her career, Bonnie Raitt has slowly become something of an institution. She’s had quite a life – learning to play the guitar at the age of 12, she quickly became a virtuoso and spent her teenage years playing R’n'B clubs around Boston.
A string of albums and collaborations with blues legends such as Howling Wolf garnered her critical acclaim but very little record sales. It was only in 1989, after a battle with drink and drugs, that she released Nick Of Time, a record that saw her win several Grammys and suddenly become a superstar.
Now aged 57, Souls Alike is her first record to be released since the death of her mother from Alzheimer’s, which was followed swiftly and cruelly by her father passing away. She’s also had to nurse her brother through brain cancer (now in remission, happily) – it would be understandable if this was a morbid record, mediating on death and mortality, but that’s not the case.
For Souls Alike is what Bonnie Raitt does best – superb bluesy rock, with Raitt on top form, both vocals-wise and on her beloved slide guitar. There’s only really Ry Cooder who can rival Raitt’s prowess with a bottleneck guitar, and she contributes several blistering solos here, especially on the excellent Unnecessary Mercenary.
Souls Alike is Raitt’s first album to be self-produced, and it’s the sound of a woman comfortable in her own skin. Although it’s radio-friendly, classy and tuneful, it’s never bland – always possessing an edgy, steely quality encompassed in the opening track I Will Not Be Broken. “Push me to the limit, maybe I will bend, but I know where I’m going, I will not be broken” sings Raitt, in a manner that anyone battling through life’s cruelties will draw inspiration from.
Although Raitt hasn’t written any of the songs featured on the album, she’s gathered a fine songwriting team behind her. God Was In The Water mixes funk with country-blues, and Crooked Crown is miles away from anything she’s done before, showcasing Raitt’s willingness to experiment. Voicebox tricks, clipped guitar lines and a swirling, uplifting melody all combine to make it the best song Alanis Morissette never recorded.
Love On One Condition covers more traditional ground, featuring a honky-tonk piano and Raitt growling and purring through Jim Cleary’s lyrics. Trinkets is perhaps the best song here though, an affecting portrait of a child growing up in New Orleans. Although some of the lyrics here are a bit cringeworthy (“Help �em be happy like that guy named Mike, yeah the groovy old man that fixes my bike”), the song’s rootsy feel and Raitt’s almost spoken-word vocal lends it a terrific atmosphere.
Of the songwriters on the record, perhaps Maia Sharp makes the most impression, especially on the closing The Bed I Made. This jazzy ballad features a wonderful piano riff and a wistful vocal from Raitt, full of honesty and regret as she addresses the mistakes she’s made in a relationship. It’s a beautiful closer for the album and sticks in the mind for long after the CD is out of the player.
So if you’ve heard the name Bonnie Raitt but never investigated her music, Souls Alike is a great place to start. Although fans of Sheryl Crow and Shelby Lynne will find much to enjoy, there’s more to Raitt than country-rock – blues, folk, jazz all find a place here and are mixed together by that indefinable quality Raitt has in spades. Another classy record from a woman on top of her game.