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Bonnie Raitt extends the boundaries of her signature sound with 'Just Like That...'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Bonnie Raitt has just released her first album in over six years. It's called "Just Like That" and finds her working in a variety of genres, including the blues, reggae, rock and funk. In April, Raitt was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys, but rock critic Ken Tucker says her creative lifetime has been revitalized and extended by this highly eclectic new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MADE UP MIND")

BONNIE RAITT: (Singing) It starts out slow. Go ahead and go. Pretty soon the melody is like a rainstorm tin-roof symphony. But it starts out slow.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: One thing that strikes you immediately upon listening to this album, "Just Like That," is that this is Bonnie Raitt stretching out, extending the boundaries of her signature sound. Listen to her cover of a Toots and the Maytals song, "Love So Strong," a sturdy chunk of reggae that she'd planned to sing as a duet with her friend Toots Hibbert, but he died before that could happen, in 2020. In the middle of the song, she takes a slide guitar solo that is fleet and fluid, winding around the beat and the clattering drums of Ricky Fataar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE SO STRONG")

RAITT: (Singing) I said my love is so strong, and my mind is unchangeable. You take a look at my face. You will see that my future's still bright, oh, bright as the sun and the sky now, honey. You're sure to see me shine, shine as the stars in the morning that brighten up the sky.

TUCKER: With the exception of the early '90s, when the startling commercial success of her album "Nick Of Time" made her briefly ubiquitous, Raitt has always been more of what they used to call a journeyman than either a cult item or a star. Despite all that nice late-career recognition such as her recent lifetime achievement Grammy, to call Raitt an icon ignores the fact that she's never wanted to be worshipped. Her voice remains a subtle instrument, earthy with an ache around the edges, its smoothness textured by a fine grittiness. Its sly intimacy is, as always, a deep pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING'S GOT A HOLD OF MY HEART")

RAITT: (Singing) No one drive me crazy like the crazy you drive me. Blast off planet Venus. Ain't no use to revive me. And I know just what I want to do and when I want to do it. Never knew this could feel so bad. I don't know why I waited for the love of me. Something's got a hold of my heart.

TUCKER: Raitt takes her sadness about people who've died over the past few years and transfigures that sense of loss into a roiling passion that bursts out as a rocker called "Livin' For The Ones."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' FOR THE ONES")

RAITT: (Singing) I can barely raise my head off the pillow. Some days I never get out of bed. I start out with the best of intentions and then shuck it instead. Don't think we'll get back how we use to. No use in tryin' to measure the loss. We better start gettin' used to it and damn the cost. Go ahead and ask me how I make it through. The only way I know is keep livin' for the ones, ones who didn't make it.

TUCKER: Raitt wrote the bittersweet lyrics to "Livin' For The Ones" and this album is unusual for having four songs written by Raitt, who spent most of her career interpreting other writers' songs. She said in recent interviews that she was partially inspired to write after thinking deeply about the death of John Prine in 2020. You can hear Prine's influence in "Down The Hall," in which she plucks her guitar and sings in the character of a person tending to frail patients in a hospice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN THE HALL")

RAITT: (Singing) I had the flu in a prison infirmary. My last day, I looked up and saw a man wheeled round the corner, down to skin and bones, that's all. I asked the nurse where he was going. She said hospice down the hall. He probably won't be in there long. In a day, we'll get the call. I asked if they let family in. She said not really at the end. Truth is, a lot don't have someone, no friends or next of kin. The thought of those guys goin' out alone...

TUCKER: That is a voice of compassion and generosity, qualities many of us encounter all too rarely these days. Bonnie Raitt has always been an intriguingly complex figure, a singer-songwriter with a social conscience who's kept sloganeering out of her music, a lusty, salty, good time gal with the work ethic of a disciplined artist, a vocalist who treats romance and relationships as things that require patience and maturity. At the age of 72 and 50 years since the release of her first album, she's poured a lifetime of those attributes into this new one.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed Bonnie Raitt's new album called "Just Like That." On Monday's show, Terry talks with New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns about their new book, "This Shall Not Pass" (ph). It's already rocked the nation with revelations about the January 6 assault on the Capitol, including the fact that House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy planned to tell President Trump to resign. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering this week by Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLAME IT ON ME")

RAITT: (Singing) Blame it on me. Hold up my faults for all to see. Truth is love's first first casualty. Blame it on me. Blame it on me. It's not the way love's supposed to be. How can you so casually blame it on me? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.