1980’s Mad Love was one of the most polarizing entries in Linda Ronstadt’s lengthy discography. But does it deserve the knocks it took upon its initial release?
By the mid-70s, Ronstadt had become a premier hitmaker, using a formula that mixed equal parts rock and pop, with significant country and folk influences, plus a dash of blues here or a hint of gospel there. The singer tackled some well-known entries from the American rock, country and R&B songbooks, giving them a contemporary sheen courtesy of frequent collaborator Peter Asher. She’d then mix in some lesser known compositions from contemporary writers. It was a combo that produced a string of platinum albums and hit singles.
When Ronstadt’s formula was on its game (Heart Like A Wheel, Prisoner in Disguise), it earned her critical plaudits in addition to chart success. Other albums could be more divisive, earning her fan devotion, but alienating often snobbish reviewers. Lest people think that a lack of perspective was born only with the advent of internet comment culture, there were plenty of critics who viewed Ronstadt’s covers as tantamount to the singer dragging their cherished memories out to the woodshed and pumping lead between their eyes. When it came to music critics, the singer was always one cut away from getting an irrationally scathing review.
Earlier in her career, Ronstadt’s rock idiom veered toward the “country rock” prevalent in the Southern California scene of the early ’70s. She seemed to be on surer ground with her critics when tackling the work of folkier tunesmiths like Karla Bonoff, the McGarrigle sisters, James Taylor or Lowell George. But by the late ’70s, the singer turned to more modernistic writers like Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon, which tended to bring out the knives of her detractors. Still, as one of the preeminent hitmakers of her day, Ronstadt made an effort to embrace the sounds of the moment.
Which brings us to the 1980 release of Mad Love, known as Ronstadt’s attempt at working in the New Wave style. It was almost the personification of polarizing.
On the one hand, it was a platinum-selling album that produced two Top 10 hits and a third Top 40 single. Almost four decades later some Ronstadt fans will defend it passionately as one of the best female rock albums of its era. Upon its release, reviewers were not kind, labeling it a creative failure, an ill-advised attempt by Ronstadt to seek a hit by embracing a trendy style that didn’t suit her. Ronstadt and rock critics had an uneasy relationship at best and her devoted fans frequently loved her work more than professional commentators did. So, looking back at Mad Love with four decades of perspective, where does the truth lie?
In fact, there isn’t a bad cut on Mad Love and some of the performances are among Ronstadt’s strongest. While billed as a “New Wave album,” only a couple of tracks were outright New Wave. The others were constructed on a frame of the country-tinged California rock of Ronstadt’s earlier albums, then, to differing extents, various New Wave sounds, touches and approaches were blended in. The result was something that was recognizably Ronstadt, but with the conscious intent to reflect a popular style of the moment. Ronstadt was often known for her crystalline tenor and way with a big moment. And certainly there were points on Mad Love where she hit a high note perfectly and held it for awhile. But for much of the collection, she practiced an admirable restraint, underselling moments, playing around with her phrasing and injecting a bit of believable grit into her vocals that served the idea of the album quite well.
Mad Love’s trio of hit singles showcased the singer at her best. Lead cut “How Do I Make You” could be the most propulsive single or Ronstadt’s career, boasting a killer hook and driving guitar/drum combo that worked up a fine head of steam. Follow-up “Hurt So Bad,” also a Top 10 finisher, could have been problematic, as the original Little Anthony version was iconic. Rather than copy it, Ronstadt and company brought it into the ’80s and Ronstadt’s impassioned vocal made it one of her best singles. Ronstadt performed a similar feat with “I Can’t Let Go,” a Hollies cover that worked quite nicely and notched her another Top 40 hit. Costello infamously wasn’t pleased with Ronstadt’s takes on the trio of his songs she covered for Mad Love, but his criticisms seemed borne more from general crankiness than a fair evaluation of the recordings. The strongest of the three was “Party Girl,” where Ronstadt injected genuine pathos into her performance, turning the song into an emotional hangover lament for the just concluded non-stop bash that was the ’70s rock scene. Her take on the oft-covered “Girls Talk” may not have been definitive, but Ronstadt brought the necessary smirk and irony to her interpretation; and she kept up with the off-kilter cadence of the album-closing “Talking in the Dark” quite nicely. The mid-tempo burn of “Justine” was another standout. It all added up to a pretty strong mix that’s worth hearing. Perhaps the most “New Wave” thing about the album was how its ten cuts managed to clock in at just over a half hour.
Does Mad Love have a legacy? It’s mixed, to be sure.
It’s not hard to hear some echoes of what Ronstadt was doing on the album in contemporary alterna-pop, but that could be that Mad Love was a concerted attempt to reflect what was going on in the industry at the time and thus flirted with the evolution of modern rock. Ronstadt herself didn’t seem to embrace the album in the long term; after its supporting tour, the Mad Love songs didn’t become a significant part of her concert repertoire and got short shrift on the singer’s various hits/best of collections. The album is available on a variety of streaming and download services and while it’s attracted a small bit of attention, it’s hardly experienced a Digital Era rediscovery.
Broadcast radio hasn’t been much of a home for Mad Love, either. Back during its initial run, “How Do I Make You” and other cuts got some decent play on AOR radio and would fit onto current Classic Rock playlists quite easily. Except that Ronstadt is one of the many female artists whose rock hits the format pretends don’t exist. The songs of many of Ronstadt’s contemporaries are in regular rotation at Adult Alternative radio, but Ronstadt herself doesn’t turn up there very often. Soft rock channels, especially ones that emphasize older hits, play a healthy dose of Ronstadt songs but tend to focus on her pop-oriented material; “Hurt So Bad” might get some attention now and then, but don’t expect to find any of the album’s other cuts on soft rock outlets.
Mad Love wasn’t quite the end of an era for Ronstadt (that came two years later, with the tepidly received Get Closer). But it was an early signal that the singer had grown tired of her previous approach and wanted to branch out. Indeed, over the quarter century that followed Get Closer, until illness forced a premature end to her career, Ronstadt would bounce from one genre to another (standards, Spanish language music, country, etc.), producing a mainstream pop album only once every few years. Mad Love is the moment in her discography that Ronstadt decided to do what she wanted. If nothing else, it’s a stab at independence from an artist who was always a bit more transgressive than she got credit for.