The Essentials: Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

It’s an album so good that I’ve bought it multiple times – first on vinyl, then CD, then via the two-CD The Best of Linda Ronstadt: The Capitol Years, which actually contains her four Capitol albums in full (plus a handful of bonus tracks), then on high-resolution (24/192) and now, for a second time, vinyl – though this last time it was a Christmas gift from my wife, so perhaps I shouldn’t count it.

In any event, it’s Linda’s greatest work.

Even that young (now old) curmudgeon Dave Marsh, in the (blue) Rolling Stone Record Guide, had nice things to say about it – after calling her “at best a competent craftsman, and at worst an empty-headed, soulless dispenser of music as sheer commodity,” that is. (Side note: I recall reading those words – and similar criticisms Marsh leveled against other artists I like[d] – in the early ‘80s and thinking he must have a hearing impairment. Because we certainly weren’t hearing the same thing.) To the point: Of this album, the first Ronstadt LP produced by Peter Asher, Marsh writes that her “voice was finally pitted against fine material and pushed to convey some of the spirit as well as the outline of the songs. ‘You’re No Good’ and ‘When Will I Be Loved’ actually are better than the Betty Everett and Everly Brothers originals, and the title song, written by Anna McGarrigle, represents Ronstadt’s first important discovery of a new writer.”

Now, I happen to like Linda’s earlier efforts. To my ears, they’re solid efforts accented by moments of sheer grace – her rendition of Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water,” from her eponymous third LP, is the best example. But Heart Like a Wheel is when she found her voice. She may not have written the songs, but she sure sounds – to me, at least – as if she’s lived them. The performances are letter-note perfect, passionate and dramatic, beginning with the album’s opening cut.

Other highlights include “It Doesn’t Matter Any More”…

…“Dark End of the Street”…

…the title cut…

…”When Will I Be Loved”…

…and “Willin’.”

And thus began a streak of LPs that helped define the 1970s, including such gems as Prisoner in Disguise, Hasten Down the Wind, Simple Dreams and Living in the USA. They all followed the pattern Asher and Ronstadt implemented so well on Heart – well-chosen oldies alongside songs from up-and-coming singer-songwriters. Each of those albums is worth picking up. But none sparkle as much as this gem.

Side 1:

  1. You’re No Good
  2. It Doesn’t Matter Any More
  3. Faithless Love
  4. Dark End of the Street
  5. Heart Like a Wheel

Side 2:

  1. When Will I Be Loved
  2. Willin’
  3. I Can’t Help If I’m Still in Love With You
  4. Keep Me From Blowin’ Away
  5. You Can Close Your Eyes

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