Saturday, February 09, 2013

"You Can't Fail Me Now" / Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt's always good -- that just goes without saying. So consistently excellent that I sometimes forget about her, especially when she hasn't put out a new album for a while.

All the more reason to celebrate her new album Slipstream. Because sometimes the stars are in alignment and a veteran rocker like Bonnie can even surprise herself.

As I've said before, Bonnie is one of my all-time Rock Sisters. But the X-factor in this album just may be producer Joe Henry, a sort of rock Zelig who turns up in so many quality projects lately. I first caught wind of him through his cover of the classic "Until You Came Into My Life" on a Starbucks compilation called Sweetheart Songs (which I bought only for Nick Lowe's cover of "It's All In the Game"). Joe Henry's track, though, made me sit up and take notice, make a point of remembering that name. Now I'm really curious.

Joe originally wrote this song with Loudon Wainwright for the Judd Apatow movie Knocked Up, a.k.a. the prequel to This Is 40, featuring the reunited Rumour with Graham Parker (just sayin'.). The connections just keep on coming....

Wainwright and Henry have both recorded this too, and their versions share the same langorous tempo, the same loungey jazz undertone. But Bonnie's richer, bluesier voice adds extra magic to this track. There's a pulse of passion in her syncopation, almost as if she's caressing the syllables; she heaves her voice into those rising intervals almost like a drowsy cat stretching. She sounds skeptical, a little weary, soulful but not sorrowful. Standing her ground, cocking a hip. Damn sexy.
I love how this song encapsulates a vivid moment of truth: "I know that fan is moving air / I can see it in your hair / But I can't bear / To breathe it in somehow."  That cresting first melodic line holds such hope, but the rest of the verse soon gets tangled up on equivocation. We're in shifting emotional territory here, strikingly evoked in lines such as "the stain of love's a smudge across my brow," "I bit off more than I can chew," and the great couplet, "I lost the thread among the vines / And hung myself in story lines." It's a humbling moment, when you realize that your lover actually may have more of a valid case against you than you suspected.
And yet you realize, with surprise, that you still trust your better half -- that "you can't fail me now," It's a matter of life or death, actually, a casting of your heart out upon uncertain seas -- that leap of faith without which no love can really survive.
Leap of faith, I'm telling you. "We're taught to love the worst of us / And mercy more than life, but trust me / Mercy's just a warning shot across the bow / I live for yours / And you can't fail me now." You're exposed, you're vulnerable -- and you put your life completely in the other person's hands. Which takes so much blind faith.
For once, Bonnie -- a formidable guitarist in her own right -- cedes the ground to the great, truly great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and the whole thing coheres in a low-to-the-ground groan of need and desire. This is one of the things I most love about Bonnie Raitt, how she's willing to jettison everything for the emotional core of the blues. I am feeling like crap and this seems to be the only way out. Only a truly intelligent woman could take the low road when it's the only road that makes sense.
And shoot -- let's just jump off that cliff. Because why not? 

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