In a colder, harsher world, it would be easy to carp about Bonnie Raitt's Longing in Their Hearts (Capitol). After a slew of critically applauded albums that failed to live up to their commercial potential, Raitt is now a certified media darling, awards-show regular, and multiplatinum star, and she has no intention of jeopardizing that long-overdue success. Her latest album hardly deviates one guitar-plucked iota from the formula of her last two (and most successful) albums same producer (Don Was), many of the same musicians, backup singers, and songwriters, and the same mix of amiable blues rock and pensive, adult-contemporary ballads. Like its predecessors, Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw, the album is essentially easy-listening roots rock, an agreeable genre Raitt has made all her own.
And yet carping seems ungenerous, since Raitt remains one of the most utterly guileless performers rock has ever produced. For all its superficial, copycat qualities, Longing doesn't reek at all of insincerity or calculation. It doesn't carry the emotional heft of those last two records, either, but it isn't meant to. It's an album of modest pleasures and modest creative growth by a woman who has earned the luxury of chilling out and who is learning to kick back a little and refine her style at her own pace.
Raitt's earliest albums, back in the '70s, were ramshackle in the best way. She dabbled in styles ranging from white-girl Delta blues to lounge ballads to folk rock, all set to music that sounded as if it were recorded in a living room with a bunch of friends adding licks on their way to the kitchen. Longing in Their Hearts brings back some of that old grab-bag charm. The title track with lyrics by hubby/actor Michael O'Keefe (Roseanne), in which he compares their marriage to that of a cantankerous couple who work at an old-fashioned diner has clanky rhythms and a chirpy mandolin. A Raitt meditation on adhering to the sober life, ''Feeling of Falling,'' has such a bar-band feel (starting with its after-hours organ) that it even has a bass solo. And the bare-boned ''Shadow of Doubt,'' the most blatant nod to her roots, finds her playing acoustic slide guitar, accompanied only by Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica and her own stomping foot. The song's chorus ''Oh but Lord no, don't make it easy/ Keep me workin' 'til I work it on out'' makes for a fitting summation of Raitt's career.
There are more austere moments, too, including a sparkling rendition of ''Dimming of the Day,'' a typically beautiful tale of unrequited love by British cult rocker Richard Thompson, and a warm, snuggle-by-the-fire ballad, ''You,'' where Raitt's voice slides easily into a falsetto. Combine moments like that with the bluesier tracks and the unimaginative white reggae of ''Cool, Clear Water,'' and you get an album that isn't nearly as unified as her last two; nor is there a ballad with the amber glow of Luck of the Draw's ''I Can't Make You Love Me.'' To nitpick a little further, some of the rockers, like the single ''Love Sneakin' Up on You,'' are a tad too reminiscent of Raitt comeback hits like ''Something to Talk About'' and ''A Thing Called Love.''
Longing in Their Hearts prefers to break new ground in other, subtler ways. Raitt wrote or cowrote half the album's 12 songs, an all-time record for someone who has relied on outside songwriters all of her career. She mostly deals with the ups and downs of relationships, and the balance of sacrifice and gratification (including a hefty dose of sex) that comes with them. (The exception is the anti-yuppie bile of ''Hell to Pay,'' set to tight but derivative shuffle blues.) Only one gem emerges from this batch ''Circle Dance,'' a clear-eyed contemplation on leaving a relationship behind, set to a gentle, roundelay lite-folk melody. Raitt seems to still be finding her voice as a writer; but at least at 44, she's continuing to push herself and grow as an artist all those moldy cliches. How many of her peers can make that kind of claim? B