It’s been a pretty good year to be a rock ‘n’ roll survivor, what with enjoyable releases from Bob Dylan (age 68), Levon Helm (69), and almost-sexagenarians Bruce Springsteen (59) and the New York Dolls’ David Johansen (also 59). Yes, they’re all taking well-deserved victory laps, but damned if they’re not all still-vital artists pushing themselves artistically. To that list, let’s also add one-time Young Dude and former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter, back after 2007’s excellent Shrunken Heads, with Man Overboard. Would you guess, that at 70, Hunter’s the most senior of this rockin’ group? You might after giving the new record a spin. Forget “dadrock”—rock ‘n’ roll’s now been around long enough to give birth to “granddadrock”.
Hunter’s always been part old man, full of piss and vinegar, anyways, so it’s no surprise that he’s still churning out tunes embracing outsiders and standing up for the little guy as he enters his eighth decade… for half an album at least; more about that later. He gives away the secret to his success on the rollicking autobiographical opener, “The Great Escape”: “When you gotta get away, you gotta get away—especially when the other guy’s bigger than you!” The rest of side A is vintage Hunter: the blue collar laments “Up and Running” and “Man Overboard” shine a populist light on those left behind in Bailout America: workers replaced by “$100 robots” but keeping their chins up metaphorically on the former; doing so literally on the piano-washed title track, the narrator carrying on despite realizing he’ll “never learn the 12 steps to heaven.” Joined once again by Shrunken Heads producer Andy York and many of the musicians from that record’s sessions, Overboard‘s first half nearly matches the late-career highs of its predecessor.
After a sprightly gag about sexual politics at work, “The Girl from the Office”, which isn’t about Jenna Fischer or Mindy Kaling (chorus: “What’s she like in bed?”; has Hunter ever held a day job?), the fight leaves Hunter—or is it vice versa?—and side B exposes Hunter’s way-too-contented lion in winter. If you know any aging rockers who need some songs to wobble to at their 50th wedding anniversary, look no further than the four midtempo ballads that grind Man Overboard to a halt: “Flowers”, “These Feelings”, “Win It All”, and “Way With Words”. (“You rock me like a lullaby,” coos Hunter on the last of these.) And the closing ballad, “River of Tears”, a tale of a peaceful Native American tribe set to a cockeyed piano riff from R.E.M.‘s “Nightswimming”, manages to be both overcooked and half-baked at the same time.
Yes, I realize I’m a colossal d-bag for finding fault with an old man’s happiness. But for nearly 40 years people (myself included) have found solace in Hunter’s wit and cynicism. To hear a half-dozen sappy love songs from this notoriously poison pen, well, what the world needs now from Hunter is not love, sweet love.
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