John Hiatt: Crossing Muddy Waters

John Hiatt
Crossing Muddy Waters

Things couldn’t be much better for John Hiatt right now. Seen on public television weekly as the host of Sessions at West 54th Street, Hiatt’s music has been highly visible as well. He had a song on the soundtrack to the film Where the Heart Is, and retooled his “Riding with the King” for use as the title cut on the recent Eric Clapton / B. B. King collaborative album. His own career as a performer is back in the spotlight too with this one-shot album for the Internet-only MP3 label Emusic, licensed to Vanguard for traditional retail.

Like his career-making critical favorite Bring the Family, the recording sessions for this album took only three days. The effect in both cases is to render the songs in a form as close to their natural, formative state as possible. Where the earlier album was a stripped-down, rocking bass-drums-guitar combo, this time around Hiatt utilizes mostly acoustic instruments to give the disc a homey, back porch appeal which hearkens back to his Slow Turning and Walk On albums.

Hiatt’s reputation as an ace songwriter whose tunes are adaptable to everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Iggy Pop is well deserved. Hiatt himself shows off some of that versatility here on tracks from the gospel-blues “Lift Up Every Stone,” to the melody of “Only the Song Survives,” which echoes the tune of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.”

If one were to read personal travails into the lyrics of Hiatt’s songs, it would be easy to surmise that not all is okay in his love life. Over half of the songs here deal with broken relationships and lost love, and not in an obscure way. “We were shooting for the sun, I guess the darkness finally won,” says “Take It Back.” He takes this theme to comical lengths on the rave-up, “Gone, Gone Away,” when he yelps out increasingly sad metaphors for ‘Gone,’ like, “My last paycheck,” “The car I wrecked,” “A fifth of gin,” and, “the shape I’m in.” It doesn’t get much more gone than that, even on this leaving-fixated disc.

Like Bruce Springsteen on his excellent breakup-tinged song cycle Tunnel of Love, Hiatt the songwriter and consummate musician still manages to coax some powerfully stirring music out of whatever heartache he might be suffering, crossing those muddy waters of love himself. Despite the downcast themes which persist throughout, Hiatt leaves us with the upbeat, spiritual strains of “Before I Go,” in which he humbly admits to his own inadequacies, “I will try, and I will stumble, but I will fly, he told me so / Proud and high or low and humble, many miles before I go.” Love may leave him, but Hiatt’s not leaving love behind, here or ever.