Heart Like a Wheel
Released: December 1974
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 51
Linda Ronstadt had her first hit, "Different Drum," in 1967, singing with a group called the Stone Poneys. She didn't have one again until "Long Long Time" in 1970. Though long acknowledged to be one of the best woman singers in pop, it wasn't until last year, with the release of her debut album on Asylum, Don't Cry Now, that her years of working toward mass recognition began to pay off. Heart like a Wheel, which concluded her prior commitment to Capitol, should guarantee her success.
After years of touring, Linda Ronstadt has developed into the rare artist who comes off even better live than on record. Last February, when she opened for Jackson Browne at Carnegie Hall, I was awed by her stage demeanor. She took immediate command of both her band and the audience and delivered a thoroughly enjoyable and professional set, a satisfying crosssblend of pop and country. One of the reasons Heart like a Wheel is so impressive, surpassing even the excellent Don't Cry Now, is its expansion of repertoire beyond country and folk-rock. It also joins Ronstadt to her ideal producer, Peter Asher, who, with Andrew Gold, has provided ten well-chosen songs with full, distinctive sound settings, notable for the variety and imagination of their instrumentation.
While the remainder of the album consists of good material by Paul Anka, Lowell George, Phil Everly and James Taylor, among others, all of it is overshadowed by the title song, written by Anna McGarrigle, whose "Cool River" was recently recorded by Maria Muldaur. A folk hymn, whose tune and lyrics are incredibly eloquent in their simplicity, "Heart like a Wheel" is a masterpiece of writing and arrangement, set by David Campbell as a formal chamber piece with piano, double bass, cello, viola and fiddle counterpointing dual vocals by Ronstadt and Maria Muldaur. The song lyric, which distills the themes of the album -- "And it's only love, and it's only love/That can wreck a human being and turn him inside out" -- also underscores the essence of Ronstadt's vocal personality. No other pop singer so perfectly embodies the Western mythical girl/woman, heartbroken yet resilient and entirely feminine in the traditional sense. There is a throbbing edge to Ronstadt's honey-colored soprano that no other singer quite possesses -- the edge between vulnerability and willfulness that I find totally, irresistibly sexy.
- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 1/16/75.
I will get no argument, I think, when I say that Linda Ronstadt has been one of the prettier fixtures around the pop scene now for six or seven years. And not only that, for from her earliest days with the Stone Poneys she has shared with us a gentle, warm, performing personality and dynamite musicianship as well. She's turned up with an album of her own from time to time, but mostly she seems to have spent a good deal of time helping out other, sometimes not so talented, musicians. That, and a winter that already seems overlong, makes her new Capitol release Heart Like a Wheel as welcome as springtime, blossoming as it is with beautiful Linda Ronstadt performances.
Take, for example, her lovely, straight-on, never maudlin or smarmy job on Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love with You": it's done with all the standard c-&-w trimmings, but Ronstadt's performance is so unaffected, so artfully artless, so sure and so true that it is immediately lifted above the level of whiny jukebox lament to that of a folk song about a woman's human dignity. Or try her sensitive reading of "Dark End of the Street," illumined and made significant by the light of her musical intelligence. And there's also "Heart Like a Wheel," to which Maria Muldaur, another lady of impressive gifts, contributes a sisterly harmony vocal, returning the compliment Linda paid her on the recent Waitress in a Donut Shop, and proving that they know what we know.
Ronstadt's voice has honeyed into a rich, womanly thing that has the rounded femininity of a Renoir drawing. At times she sounds a bit like Mary Travers in her prime, which ain't bad, but mostly she sounds like an artist who has finally come into her own. All in all, this is a lovely album by a fine singer who obviously knew all along that she could afford to wait. Just don't know whether or not I can -- for the next one, that is.
- Peter Reilly, Stereo Review, 4/75.
One of the few ladies who has enjoyed equal success in the pop and country fields over a sustained period comes up with one of her finest LPs, from ballsy R&B to country to country blues. Ms. Ronstadt has a deceptive voice. At first listen she sounds like a little girl, yet she can handle almost anything well. Right now at the peak ot her popularity as far as personal appearances go, there is enough material here to keep her going strong on the country airwaves, lots at cuts for FM and MOR and, surprisingly, an AM possibility or two. Superb instrumentation throughout, excellent choice of songs and best use yet made of the artist's voice. Shifting of one musical genre to another is tasteful and works well, and her star as a stylist keeps growing. Best cuts: "You're No Good," "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," "Dark End Of The Street," "Heart Like A Wheel," "Willin," "Keep Me From Blowing Away."
- Billboard, 1975.
For the first time, everybody's sexpot shows confidence in her own intelligence. As a result, she relates to these songs instead of just singing them. It's even possible to imagine her as a lady trucker going down on Dallas Alice -- and to fault her for ignoring the metaphorical excesses of Anna McGarrigle's title lyric just so she can wrap her lungs around that sweet, decorous melody. A-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
- Cub Koda, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Heart Like a Wheel exemplifies Peter Asher's influential production style and Ronstadt's emotional brand of country-rock. In the poignant title tune, memorable duets and carefully chosen remakes, Ronstadt successfully walks the line dividing sadness from sappiness. * * * * *
- Elizabeth Lynch, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
It's easy to see what then-governor Jerry Brown saw in her -- Linda Ronstadt was so cute in her hot pants you didn't realize how talented she was, but this chart-topping pop-rock disc put her on the map. The superbly natural voice of the California '70s jumps from the speakers and wraps the songs around you in a style that is nonetheless mellow on a heartbreakingly beautiful album that, with the help of a whole lot of her friends, is 100% good. * * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
"There's no way that I can be objective and say one album is better than another," Ronstadt told Rolling Stone in 1978. "I never listen to them anyway." But millions of other people did, especially to this record, where she displays her vocal flexibility and rock grit on "You're No Good" and country twang on a cover of Hank Williams Sr.'s "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)." Collaborating with producer Peter Asher, Ronstadt blends quality oldies (the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved?") and hip songwriters of her era (Lowell George, Anna McGarrigle), gracing each composition with her golden voice.
Heart Like a Wheel was chosen as the 164th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
Ten love songs rendered with great care and Laurel Canyon laid-back-ness, Linda Ronstadt's Heart like a Wheel sounds like it belongs next to the records singer-songwriters like Neil Young and Jackson Browne were making in Southern California in the early '70s. It's got the soothing background vocals, and crop-dusting acoustic guitars that could have flown in from an Eagles session.
But in almost every way, it stands apart from that scene. Where the singer-songwriters proffered their own visions, former Stone Poneys singer Linda Ronstadt didn't write any songs -- instead, she sought out little-known gems from emerging tunesmiths like Kate and Anna McGarrigle, who who wrote the title track. And where the songwriters usually aimed for a unified mood, Ronstadt goes the other way, covering long-discarded soul hits ("The Dark End of the Street") and chipper Everly Brothers pop ("When Will I Be Loved") as well as more delicate meditations about love and the human spirit ("Heart like a Wheel").
The writerly notions are held together by Ronstadt's assured, easygoing lead vocals. In contrast to the oft-wistful (or apologetic) songwriters, she sings with a steely authority, using delicate pencil-sketch shades to underscore her lyrics. The album opens with "You're No Good," the shout of betrayal that became her first number 1 single: Ronstadt belts it as though she wants to rattle the clock off the wall. Just when you get used to this firecracker persona -- she's the roar Helen Reddy needed for "I Am Woman" -- Ronstadt changes her tone dramatically, etching "Faithless Love" in a mood of dejection mixed with vulnerability. The temperament changes from song to song as Ronstadt shines a light on the faint shadows, moments she treasures that others might have missed. She sings in a way that can make you think she wrote the music, and in a sense she did: Even though some of these songs kicked around for decades, they're completely reborn when she sings them.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
Linda Ronstadt became a soft-rock queen with her fifth album. She covers Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle on the gorgeous title track. Her version of Betty Everett's "You're No Good" hits a perfect mix of desire and paranoia.
Heart Like a Wheel was chosen as the 490th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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