Just Like That – NYT Critic’s Pick
Who would expect a Bonnie Raitt song to start like this? “Had the flu in the prison infirmary,” she sings in “Down the Hall,” from her new album, “Just Like That…,” which arrives more than half a century after her debut.
“Down the Hall” is a folky, fingerpicked ballad, written by Raitt, with the plain-spoken diction of a John Prine song. Based on a New York Times story, it is narrated by a convict, a murderer, who finds a kind of atonement in becoming a prison hospice worker: “The thought of those guys goin’ out alone/It hit me somewhere deep,” she sings, as Glenn Patscha’s organ chords swell behind her like glimmers of redemption.
“Down the Hall” is the somber finale to “Just Like That…,” Raitt’s first album since 2016. The music’s style is familiar; Raitt, 72, reconvened her longtime band members, who are old hands at blues, soul, ballads and reggae, and she produced the tracks with the feel of musicians performing together in real time, savoring grooves and finding warmth in human imperfections.
But the album was recorded in 2021, well into the pandemic, and it shows. Along with her usual insights into grown-up love, desire, heartbreak and regret, Raitt’s latest collection of songs directly faces mortality.
“Livin’ for the Ones,” with words by Raitt and music by the band’s guitarist George Marinelli, is a Rolling Stones-flavored rocker, with strummed and sliding guitars tumbling across the backbeat. It draws a life force from mourning, countering petty impulses toward lethargy or self-pity with the blunt recognition of so many lives lost: “If you ever start to bitch and moan,” Raitt sings, “Just remember the ones who won’t/Ever feel the sun on their faces again.”
Another kind of solace after death arrives in the quietly poignant title track of “Just Like That…,” also written by Raitt. Its story unfolds at a measured pace. A stranger shows up on the doorstep of a woman who has never stopped blaming herself for the death of her son. The man has sought her out because he’s the one who got her son’s heart as a transplant: “I lay my head upon his chest/And I was with my boy again,” Raitt sings, with sorrow and relief in the grain of her voice.
The rest of the album features Raitt’s more typical fare: songs about love lost and found, about getting together or drifting apart. “Made Up Mind,” from the Canadian band Bros. Landreth, opens the album with a stolid portrait of a slow-motion separation, feeling “the quiet behind a slamming door.” Its counterbalance is “Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart,” an Al Anderson song about a late-arriving, unexpected romance.
Yet mortality haunts even the love songs. The album includes Raitt’s remake of “Love So Strong” by the reggae pioneer Toots Hibbert, who led Toots and the Maytals and died in 2020 after being hospitalized for Covid-like symptoms. “Blame It on Me,” by John Capek and Andrew Matheson, is a bluesy, torchy, slow-dance breakup ballad that couches accusations in apologies, warning that “Truth is love’s first casualty”; near the end, Raitt turns the tables with an exquisite, sustained, breaking high note. The song also assigns some of the blame to time, which has, “Poured like sand through your hands and mine.”
Understanding that life is finite, the stakes are higher for every relationship, every moment. On “Just Like That…,” Raitt calls for compassion, consolation and perseverance to get through with grace.
“Just Like That …”