[2 June 2008]
Some say storytellers get wiser as they age. Whether it’s got something to do with more life experience, or just a changed view on the outside world, something seems to change at a certain point in a songwriter’s careers. Audiences thought that Dylan was slipping in the late ‘80s, Springsteen made his lesser albums in the mid-‘90s, and Neil Young went to a land unknown, getting sued by Geffen for not sounding enough like himself.
Although John Hiatt’s sales have never quite matched his peers, there is something to be said for his consistency in timeless songwriting. While some of the world’s most famous songwriters are off trying to explore new territory, maybe due in part to a fear of losing their flair as they age, Hiatt eases in to his later years gracefully on Same Old Man without having to make a “comeback album”.
For an artist, accepting the fact that one can’t continue to write about the same topics they wrote about in their youth can sometimes be a struggle, and the transition seemed easier for Hiatt than, say, Bob Dylan. Where Hiatt found his niche rather early in roots music after a steady run early in his career through new wave and rock n’ roll, Dylan always seemed to be looking for a new way of doing things as he aged. He seemed to become farther out of touch with what was comfortable for him as a songwriter. Not to say that exploring new territory later in a career is a bad thing—but perfecting old territory, such as Hiatt does from album to album, is constant dedication to creating a solid foundation for a record making career. This could possibly be due to the fact that Hiatt was never in as bright a spotlight as these higher profile artists, therefore the pressure to create something fresh in a dynamic sense wasn’t as prevalent.
“Old Days”, the leadoff track, is Hiatt reminiscing on his times of yore through the eyes of a man that better understands his youth. Rather than seeing that past as his golden years, he sees it as a necessary means to growing older. His veteran storytelling skills play out like a flashback of Hiatt’s highs and lows, rather than another single-minded track about the good ol’ days.
“Love You Again” is a song that could only be written by someone that has loved and experienced the forever struggle to keep that alive. Lilly Hiatt, sings background vocals on the song that stand out rather noticeably, and it’s almost as if this is something they are telling each other in song form. The refrain “I want to thank you / For letting me back in / I want to thank you / For letting me love you again” is continuously repeated, and makes up a healthy portion of the song, acting as a reminder to keep this attitude towards each other alive and to provide the message to others.
Although Hiatt may be writing to an older audience through a portion of the album, he always continues to create a universal message by telling stories of innocent love and the freewheelin’ spirit, and here we have two examples in “Ride My Pony” and the lustful tendencies of “Cherry Red”. His ability to relate to an audience through repetition and relation to a common cause is near unparalleled, and as he gets older not only does his understanding of his age become clear, but the way he looks at a younger generation becomes more focused.
Where Dylan released Modern Times as his coming of age album, Hiatt’s Same Old Man says it all in the title—he’s the same songwriter he’s been for years, and his formula is tried and true. The only thing is, his formula becomes closer to perfect with each and every test.