Form and Function?
As far as bang for the buck, this is an ideal John Hiatt sampler. In fact, unless you’re a real fan, you might be happy leaving off your Hiatt collection with this. Especially since, for a title from the budget Millennium Collection series, it clocks in at a hefty 48+ minutes. Besides, on even longer collections (1998’s Best of John Hiatt, for instance), the experience can feel slightly strained by the time the last song is through.
Which isn’t really a failing of the specific songs themselves. No, Hiatt’s professional enough that, on any song that can be argued to be one of his best, he’s going to give some contextualizing details like place and time and personality. None of the songs fall short because they’re just bland vagaries like, “I love you / You love me, too / Blah blah blah”. It isn’t even the problem of Hiatt’s voice, which, when he’s straining for emotion, sounds like the croaking of a dehydrated frog.
The problem is that Hiatt is halfway between being the faceless professional Nashville songwriter that he started out as and the idiosyncratic craftsman like Elvis Costello that some have compared him to.
Yet, despite having his four A&M studio albums whittled down to this choice dozen, there’s still nothing from Hiatt so intense, so conflicted, and so goddamned chillingly unexpected as what a few bullets do to Elvis Costello’s “Alison”.
Even at his best, Hiatt never quite speaks to the soul. In “Tennessee Plates”, for instance, Hiatt musically “borrows” a riff from would-be-Elvis Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” even as his skid row narrator does the same to the real Elvis’s Cadillac (“Anyway, he wouldn’t care. Hell, he gave ‘em to his friends—haw haw!”). After his wild weekend, he ends up in jail making—what else?—Tennessee plates.
Outlined as a story, the song has all the elements to be a great song: it could be played for pathos (Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law”), anti-establishment anger (The Clash’s “I Fought the Law”), or bawdy humor (Um, the Beastie Boys’ “She’s Crafty”). Certainly, Hiatt’s an able enough songwriter that he realizes the potential of his scenario for all three. Various lines push and pull in different combinations of these directions without achieving greatness in any of these tricky terrains. And Hiatt’s not a great enough vocalist to add depth and nuance to words that don’t already have them on the page. “Tennessee Plates” is a really good song and I get a kick out of hearing each time, but it’s not, say, “Summertime Blues”. It’s just as catchy (Naturally; it’s the same riff) and Hiatt’s lyrics certainly mean something, but Hiatt’s song lacks, to use the technical term, oomph. Maybe if Hiatt only believed more strongly, whether as a lyricist or singer, he could pull it off. Compared to what the story suggested by the song might have been, it’s almost disappointing when it ends up being just a whole lot of fun.
Still, it’s his immensely enjoyable, if not intensely inspired, professionalism that helps to explain why Hiatt has always been an artist’s artist, respected, perhaps even overly so, by his peers more than by consumers or critics. Whether for Bonnie Raitt or B.B. King and Eric Clapton, Hiatt’s canon is a treasure trove of quality songs that, if they won’t make an album, certainly won’t break it and can even build momentum or yield a catchy single. If you let the tunes wash over you, there’s only one number, the slow love song “Feels Like Rain”, that doesn’t have an instantly catchy hook. And if you give the lyrics a chance to sink in, you’ll also be amused, delighted, sometimes even curiously moved, by Hiatt’s words, as when his heart breaks at the debauchery of rock stars who’ll smash a “Perfectly Good Guitar”. Just imagine this as the greatest collection of country-rock-pop b-sides you’ve ever heard.
So, yes, when all is said and done, this is just a collection of good songs. They’re not epochal, they’re not iconic, they won’t change your life. But, at least for a lot of the time, they should still be enough.