Not every rocker needs to be Dorian Gray; some manage to find satisfaction in lives and music that proceed along a natural path towards, and through, middle age. Few have portrayed maturity’s arc with more unbridled enthusiasm than John Hiatt, the Indianapolis-born singer/songwriter whose adventures in the lost and found department of life have produced a singularly artful musical diary of an eventful existence. If the short version is that Hiatt morphed from Elvis Costello into Andy Griffith — a rootsy young idealist who survived bouts of belligerence and self-destruction only to emerge as a corny family man raising horses and kids on a Tennessee farm — that perception entirely overlooks the imagination and individuality that has informed every aspect of a real fine career.
After recording an unnoticed pair of promising but stylistically confused Nashville country-soul-rock-gospel-singer-songwriter albums — Hangin’ Around the Observatory (really good) and Overcoats (a bit bland), which tip a hat to everyone from Bob Dylan to Al Green, Leon Russell to Billy Joel — Indiana’s John Hiatt exploded onto the new wave scene in 1979, a fiercely original soul-inflected rock character likened to Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and Joe Jackson, but wholly his own man. Despite their underwhelming commercial success, all of his albums testify to an exceptional talent, both as a much-covered songwriter and as an intense, emotional performer.
A fierce bolt of compassionate new wave rancor, Slug Line is Hiatt’s rawest and most powerful LP, no more honest than his later work but in a way far less personal. The rudimentary production highlights dynamic playing and righteously rocking songs that draw with genuine conviction on both reggae and fiery R&B styles. Hiatt invests “Madonna Road,” “You’re My Love Interest,” “The Negroes Were Dancing” and other tracks with bitterness, insightful intelligence and occasional tenderness, making it a stunning work by an exciting artist.
Two Bit Monsters essentially repeats Slug Line‘s style, but with less bite. Several tunes (“Back to Normal,” “Good Girl, Bad World,” “String Pull Job”) are comparably impressive, but the album is less focused and nearly haphazard. Hiatt’s venom sears through, but it’s not his best work.
Tony Visconti produced All of a Sudden, sympathetically if incongruously displaying the songs in a complex, highly arranged setting that works to good advantage most of the time. Amid a nod to rockabilly (“Doll Hospital”) and a dose of Motown (“Getting Excited”), excellent songs like “Something Happens” and “I Look for Love” get filtered once through Hiatt’s expanding musical sensibilities and then through Visconti’s synth-rocking Bowieness, making it a strange collision of seemingly irreconcilable styles.
Hiatt’s bumpy career subsequently brought him into contact with Nick Lowe and Lowe’s manager, Jake Riviera. The former produced and led the backing band on one side of Riding With the King; the latter loaned an eye- popping motorcycle for the front cover photo. The record’s other side was produced by Scott Matthews and Ron Nagle; Matthews and Hiatt are the only musicians on those tracks. Although it may be down to the allotment of material, Lowe comes up the loser; on his side, Hiatt affects a languid swamp sound that doesn’t convey much excitement. He comes alive only for such Matthews/Nagle-produced tracks as “Death by Misadventure,” “Say It With Flowers” and “I Don’t Even Try,” prime songs given modest but appealing treatment.
Veteran mush-rock producer Norbert Putnam got the nod for Warming Up to the Ice Age. On the first track, “The Usual,” he smothers Hiatt in raucous heavy metal guitars and arena-scale drums; fortunately, that’s not the only sound on this weird record, which also contains a great soul duet with Elvis Costello (“Living a Little, Laughing a Little”), an emotion-laden ballad (“When We Ran”) and other typically on-the-mark slices of Hiatt’s cynical viewpoint (“She Said the Same Things to Me,” “Number One Honest Game”). The mix is consistently too rock-oriented — these aren’t dance tracks, for crying out loud! — but Hiatt’s subtle vocals keep things in balance. (Footnote: “The Usual” resurfaced a few years later, sung by Bob Dylan and rocker Fiona in the movie Hearts of Fire.)
The Geffen era — nicely recapitulated, adding tracks from the two MCA LPs, on Y’All Caught? — is organized stylistically in a partially successful bid to downplay the lurching album-to-album inconsistency as various producers woefully attempted to buy hits for an artist whose songs have always done the trick for others. (Bonnie Raitt is by no means the only satisfied customer on a long list of clients.)
Released four years after his departure from Geffen Records, Y’All Caught reviews Hiatt’s work on that label as well as his earlier two-album MCA career. A concise refresher course for those arriving late in the story, Y’All Caught is is organized stylistically in a partially successful bid to downplay the lurching album-to-album inconsistency.
Hiatt’s career was going nowhere fast and his personal life was no picnic, either. Luckily, for his next outing (and label), Hiatt hit on a far more rewarding format. Alone in an LA studio for four days with just Lowe, guitarist Ry Cooder (with whom Hiatt has often played), veteran session drummer Jim Keltner and a hands-off producer, he cut an extraordinary album of uncommon simplicity and candor. Ruggedly real and honest in extremis, Bring the Family has bottomless emotional depth and sonic spaces the size of sinkholes. The well-played music only serves to focus attention on that gritty, passionate voice, serving up new melodies and words reflecting the maturation and authority Hiatt’s hard travelling has earned him.
An attempt to recapture that magic with the same four collaborators ran aground over business deals, and the album was instead recorded with David Lindley, Dave Mattacks and John Doe. Upon completion, however, that record was scrapped and the process recommenced with producer Glyn Johns and Hiatt’s road band, the Goners, plus some guests. The rustic Slow Turning has some of Family‘s sonic attributes (if not its exciting immediacy), with the bonus of Hiatt’s increasingly confident and optimistic outlook. The parental warmth of “Georgia Rae” and “Slow Turning” offsets the lonely uncertainty of the gospellish “Is Anybody There?” and the stormy love in “Feels Like Rain,” while the joyous liberation of “Drive South” is tempered by the suicidal mundanity of “Ride Along.” Utterly likable but lacking emotional starch, Slow Turning is an uneven ride that could use more gas and colorful scenery.
Again produced by Johns, Stolen Moments electrifies Hiatt in more ways than one. Tastefully fired-up arrangements match Hiatt’s exuberance, the perfect complement to his articulate songs’ deepening insights about such familiar topics as faith, family and self-awareness. Finally accepting peace and happiness as a wonderful gift, Hiatt puts on a powerfully melodic variety show here, sending pop songs (“Child of the Wild Blue Yonder,” “Real Fine Love”) soaring, gently wah-wahing life into a romantic Philly soul tune (“Bring Back Your Love to Me”), rocking out (the riff in “The Rest of the Dream” is lifted from AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”) and, surprisingly, paying repeated homage to Bob Dylan. Rewriting “Every Grain of Sand” in the haunting “Through Your Hands” and echoing “Girl from the North Country” in the somber “Thirty Years of Tears,” Hiatt makes fine and fair use of a few pages from the Dylan’s songbook.
Having passed 40, with familial stability threatening to dull the sharpness of his vision, Hiatt engaged producer Matt Wallace to make the remedial and rewarding Perfectly Good Guitar, an amped-up exercise that drives a superior collection of typically handsome and sensitive tunes onto the front lawn of Neil Young’s eternal-youth noise farm. The ecstatic “Something Wild” is just that, and “Buffalo River Home” finds a place for sweet distortion in a tender reverie. But the title track, another storm of guitar fury, is a curmudgeonly and condescending attack on musicians who would dare demolish an instrument. The song makes him out to be the worst kind of intolerant, uncomprehending old fart, but if that’s where Hiatt has to go to unearth a heartbreaking jewel like “Blue Telescope,” then what the hell.
Rock therapy was good for Hiatt; despite its embarrassing cover art, the live album of his ’94 tour has a calm, settled authority underpinning the acoustic/electric performances. With six numbers from Slow Turning and five upbeat choices from Bring the Family, Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan? is a pretty chipper set, and a righteous reflection of an enthusiastic and engaging concert-giver.
Traces of Perfectly Good Guitar‘s axe frenzy appear on Walk On, but only as incidental coloration. Otherwise, the album calmly returns Hiatt to the rustic folk-roots sound of his most natural habitat, with mixed but generally positive results. Recorded with the Guilty Dogs’ rhythm section (Cracker bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Michael Urbano) and David Immerglück (Monks of Doom/Ophelias) on guitar and mandolin, Walk On is one of Hiatt’s least personal albums — the songs are more external than reflective. But a writer of his caliber rarely strikes out, and a skilled craftsman (witness “Cry Love” and “You Must Go”) doesn’t always require deep inspiration. “The River Knows Your Name” is a lovely, serene prayer to nature (that gets away with rhyming “name” and a mispronounced “Seine”), “Your Love Is My Rest” is a convincing romantic ode, and “Mile High” — an unlisted ’40s-styled jazz-pop ballad that makes bizarre reference to “all of the smack in Manhattan” — is as tender as it is uncommon. But other songs take a more conceptual route, like the short narrative of the rocking “Good as She Could Be,” the bizarre David Lynch-style mystery set to funky feedback-accented noir music of “Wrote It Down and Burned It” and the contrived nonsense of “Ethylene.” If Hiatt had seemed to be settling down, this album opens a trapdoor that he doesn’t quite fall through.
Based on the experience of Bring the Family, Little Village should have been cool, but the reunion of Hiatt, Lowe, Cooder and Keltner — co-writing a batch of songs and cutting ’em with the three singers taking turns on lead vocals — turned out to be far less than the sum of its parts the second time. Despite the abundance of compatible talent, Little Village betrays no organic sense of collaboration and is a best-forgotten blunder. Rather than enhance each other’s creative efforts, the four men manage to blunt their individual personalities into a band of undistinguished bores. “Don’t Think About Her When You’re Trying to Drive” (a song far more graceful than its title) is an exception, but Hiatt’s showcases — which fill half the record — are surprisingly dull and, for the most part, sound like his castoffs (“Solar Sex Panel”?). Lowe phones in his two spotlight dances like an uneasy house guest, and Cooder’s contributions further desiccate the atmosphere of this cheerless party.
Love Gets Strange, compiling previously issued covers, bears witness not only to the greatness of Hiatt’s songs but to the rarefied echelon of those who choose to interpret them. Leaving Bonnie Raitt out of the mix, folks like Johnny Adams, Rosanne Cash, Katty Moffat, Marshall Crenshaw, Kelly Willis, Nick Lowe, Emmylou Harris and Jeff Healey all make excellent use of a wide-ranging collection of Hiatt classics.