No Retreat, No Surrender
You should carry on reading, but at this stage of the game any music criticism about John Hiatt‘s latest work is, let’s hope, more or less irrelevant. Realistically all I may be able to achieve by writing this article is to (a) notify you that Hiatt has released a new album, Terms of My Surrender (which possibly demotes me from critic to copywriter, depending on what you think about critics) (b) remind you, that after 21 studio albums, Hiatt is a critically acclaimed and respected songwriter and (c) entertain, distract or enrage you for a short moment of time, when probably you should be doing something else far more important – like work, or playing with your children, or engaging with other human life forms. But to a certain extent this is the nature of the game. We’re in this for love not money, hoping to turn others on (or off) in some particular way. And this really is the opening point at last - Hiatt, just like Springsteen, Dylan, Young, etc, is unlikely to be releasing yet another record for the payola or acclaim. The motivation is more likely to be Hiatt “doing this” because this is what he does, because he enjoys the process, and has something he feels he needs to say. It’s also quite possible his loyal fan base and record companies gently pester him for more work.
For the uninitiated, John Hiatt is an American singer-songwriter who is commonly considered to have hit his stride somewhere around 1987’s Bring the Family (forging a strong association with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner which eventually culminated in the almost forgotten super-group Little Village) and then onwards into at least a decade or so of prominent but cultish classics like Slow Turning. Why cultish? Well, despite a push towards commercial success with Perfectly Good Guitar and Walk On, Hiatt does not court celebrity, so is not necessarily a household name. But his songs have been covered by countless more well-known artists such as the Jeff Healey Band and those double-denim rockers Bon Jovi, so the world at large does know his songs.
It’s possible as well that there was less promo and attention after 1997’s Little Head, as Hiatt left the major labels for a life as an indie artist. Despite this, in 2001 Crossing Muddy Waters was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Still, over the last ten to 15 years Hiatt seems to have had a purposefully lower profile despite releasing eight albums of new studio material between 2000 and 2012. That’s pretty good going by anyone’s standards, and each album cemented his reputation as something like the Philip Roth of rock ‘n’ roll – keeping quiet at home, but putting out consistently literate work. Rock, folk, blues, whatever you want to call it, may keep us young, but fortunately Hiatt seems to be growing old gracefully; it’s unlikely he’ll get caught up in a twerking-style publicity scandal any time soon and that’s a good thing. Stranger things have happened, but you could say the man carries himself well.
Terms of My Surrender is further demonstration of this because it’s blues-orientated, and the blues by this stage is definitely age-appropriate. Hiatt is in his early ‘60s, and it’s a much more suitable medium for him than “young people’s popular music”. He sings most of the songs in a lower register than usual, and does so well. This record does not lack authenticity – as Keith Richards has said, blues is not learnt in a monastery, and Hiatt has certainly lived. Plus it’s not as if Hiatt has suddenly jumped on the blues bandwagon – his music has always had an element of something southern about it, and early in his career he opened for John Lee Hooker. He’s also frequently toured with Robert Cray, and Buddy Guy has covered one of his songs.
For those who like the more polished Hiatt output, you won’t find it here. There’s a raw feel with what seems to be limited production. “Long Time Comin’” starts out like a demo so it’s a surprise when the track roars into full instrumentation with a roaring solo from guitarist/producer Doug Lancio, and “Face of God” begins with Hiatt asking “are we rolling?”. Both are weary songs with a real sense of being dog-tired with life. In the latter Hiatt put his own spin on the Buddhist principle that all life is suffering, taking a line from a Kenneth Patchen poem: “they say God is the devil until you look him in the eye”.
After a stroll through the light-touch “Marlene”, we perhaps get the closest to what may be Hiatt’s central vision for this album – “Wind Don’t Have To Hurry”, a dark portrayal of modern life with the thought-police at our door, habeas corpus eroded, and no platform for descent. Hiatt sounds positively riled, and the song is relentlessly driven forward by mandolin and insistent backing vocals from Brandon Young, evoking the sweeping wind of conformity set out in the lyrics. Much of the album was recorded in one room, live from the floor, and the result is an exciting heartland roar.
“Nobody Knew His Name” kicks back in to more relaxed territory, but there remains a concern with the down and out and those on the margins of society. Hiatt has always been a fine observer of human nature, and here it is well extended into the more socially conscious to encompass a Vietnam Vet who’s buddy gets killed when his rifle jams. It’s a beautifully understated recording, as Hiatt lowly growls through what is a side-of-the-tracks story, carefully detailed with sheriffs and women running off with engineers. We’re told those who can find whiskey at the stables do so because they know where to look. This is the old weird America of The Basement Tapes.
There’s perhaps more for the casual listener to relate to in “Baby’s Gonna Kick”, which channels what can be a common insecurity, the inevitable getting chucked out of the house as your belongings get thrown out the window, into a cathartic, swampy romp, featuring some awesome Chicago-style harp playing. The delightfully quirky couplet of “listening to John Lee Hooker/ got my mind on a slow meat cooker” is an unusual image, but fitting for a frisky gourmand. Similarly, “Nothin’ I Love” is a testosterone-filled, poker-playing, cigar-smoking, over-eating blues strut, beautifully describing the excess of a certain type of compulsive male behavior, where “nothin’ I love is good for me but you”. The adjacent sequencing of “Terms of My Surrender”, recalling the dreaminess of recent Dylan, is clever – “I can be rough, I can be tender/ but I can’t negotiate the terms of my surrender/ I love you too much babe/ go on and have your way with me”. The dude has to give it up, and it’s probably just as well, before he kills himself.
Slowly things are beginning to wind-down: “Here To Stay” is a transitional song on the album to suggest we’re nearing the end of things – leaves are falling, spring has dried up, and there’s evident frustration as the singer proclaims – “I treat you good/ don’t say our love is dead”. “Old People” follows, a throw-away comic vignette. Hiatt has attempted this type of song before with the fan favorite “Since His Penis Came Between Us”, a witty, raucous endeavor. “Old People” is not politically correct perhaps, but entertainingly insightful – “pushy”, “mushy” and “cushy” are no doubt easy rhymes and not particularly high-minded, but it does kind of fit the subject. As Hiatt reminds us, the older generation have less time than anyone else, so it makes perfect sense that they should push in front of others and drive how they like, at the speed they want, ultimately not caring what others think of them. Like it or not, we all have this to look forward to, and with Hiatt’s expert rendering, it becomes an unexpectedly appealing proposition.
Interestingly, Terms of My Surrender does not close with an all-American happy ending. “Come Back Home” artfully describes that troubling, sinking feeling when one person is moving on from another, from the point of view of the person being left behind. The sensation of panic and loss is well put through a flat and plain delivery: “you said you had to go to get your life together/ I didn’t know you had to go it alone”. The unwinding music enhances the narrative, as the rug is literally pulled out from underneath the narrator’s feet, helpless without a connecting telephone number, only wishing the departed would come back home. It’s a lovely song with a difficult end, but it’s all the richer for it, as this is an album which wrestles with some hard truths about life, and supposedly nothing worth doing is ever easy. Hiatt’s 22nd album is undoubtedly a marvelous surrender, but let’s hope he’s not giving up just yet.