[4 August 2011]
John Hiatt’s music has become as comfortable as an old pair of jeans, and like those work pants, he’s still right for the job. Hiatt just writes up a bunch of guitar-driven rock songs with a country blues edge, and sings and picks his way through while making observations on the state of life in America today. There are no surprises on his latest album, his twentieth, other than the fact that Hiatt’s still able to deliver the goods. Considering how much has happened since his first album back in 1974, this is nothing short of amazing. His career had has its share of ups and downs. He’s been on a slew of different record labels and been hailed as everything from the next Bob Dylan to the next Elvis Costello, mostly because of his literate word play and cynical perspective towards the world. But Hiatt just keeps on going, like those denims that never wear out.
Hiatt’s not a nostalgic person, but the narrators of the songs on his new album know life was better back then. Whether he’s singing about displaced farmers who have watched their fields turn into suburban plains or life in New York City before the events of September 11, Hiatt wants to just hold on to what he once had. That’s true in terms of love as well. It seems he feels compelled to move on even when all he wants to do is be with his current paramour or stay where he is—even when he’s cursing the place as he does in “Damn This Town”. He’s pissed that he has to leave.
There’s an anti-modern streak that runs through the disc, not only in terms of the subjects of his songs, but also in the fact that he sings with sincerity rather than sarcasm. He may be contemptuous of the present, but he does not mock it. He takes life too seriously. He can enjoy the pleasures of drinking whiskey while riding on a train, but he knows that death awaits him at the end of the journey. Still, Hiatt’s music is so damn infectious that you want to take a sip out of the flask with him.
Much of this is due to his band as well as his guitar playing. Hiatt has always assembled good talent behind him, and this is his third record with Kenny Blevins on drums, Patrick O’Hearn on bass, and Doug Lancio on guitars. O’Hearn is particularly capable, especially on a song like “Adios to California”, where the pulsating bass grabs your attention from the beginning so that it seems like the lead instrument.
Hiatt’s always had a thing for car songs. His last album was called The Open Road and he’s written such classic tunes about automobiles as “Riding with the King”, “Drive South”, and “Tennessee Plates”. Heck, he’s even been a featured celebrity interviewed by Motor Trend magazine for his views on the cars he drives. This album contains another masterpiece about a motorcar, “Detroit Made”. Hiatt sings the praises of the Buick Electra 225, a luxury muscle car from era when gas mileage was less important than style and the comfort of the vehicle. The “deuce and a quarter” still causes the auto fanatics to drool at the thought of that smooth ride. Hiatt’s ode reveals his pride in and love of the American car.
And while the album ends with his heartfelt tribute about 9/11, “When New York Had Her Heart Broke”, my guess is that “Detroit Made” will pass the test of time and be the song that is remembered. The New York tune brings back the memories of that mournful time. The narrator was in the Big Apple when the events took place, and the haunting melody suggests he can never forget what happened. But my guess Hiatt’s heart doesn’t reside in any particular place, just in the road trip to and from wherever he’s bound.