The Effortless Charm of John Hiatt Is Alive and Well on 'The Eclipse Sessions'

Photo: David McClister / Courtesy of New West Records

Legendary singer/songwriter John Hiatt's 23rd studio album, The Eclipse Sessions, is a sharp, eclectic collection of songs.

The Eclipse Sessions
John Hiatt

New West

12 October 2018

Ever since his career took a defining turn in 1987, when he went from deep-cult artist to commercial and critical success (thanks to the glowing reviews and steady sales of breakthrough albums Bring the Family and Slow Turning), John Hiatt has settled into the comfortable status of a roots-rocker. Revered for both his songwriting – covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Mandy Moore to Bonnie Raitt to Iggy Pop – as well as the country/folk/blues bent of his music, his albums don't necessarily cover a whole lot of stylistic ground, but the basic meat-and-potatoes feel of his music is something he's exceptionally good at. In other words, there aren't usually a whole lot of surprises on John Hiatt albums. You know what you're in for.

For The Eclipse Sessions, Hiatt's 23rd studio album, he decided to pare down his band to the bare minimum. With Hiatt on guitar, he's joined by longtime collaborator Kenneth Blevins on drums as well as Patrick O'Hearn (known for his work with everyone from Frank Zappa to Mark Isham) on bass. Producer Kevin McKendree joins in on keyboards, and Kevin's son Yates McKendree – who was only 16 when the album was recorded – adds plenty of lead guitar. Yates – who also served as the recording engineer - is in many ways the secret weapon here. His guitar playing is flat-out spectacular, with his expert leads comprising many of the album's musical high points. Yates is in good company, considering the fact that Hiatt has employed guitar legends like Ry Cooder and Sonny Landreth on previous albums and tours.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on The Eclipse Sessions is the relatively eclectic nature of the album's arrangements. While many of the songs include a familiar country/blues shuffle, such as on the easygoing opening track, "Cry to Me", there are also signs that the 66-year-old Hiatt is itching to break out of the familiar mold. The infectious "Outrunning My Soul" sounds like nothing Hiatt's recorded in the past 30 years, with warm electric piano and a steady beat giving the feel of a lost power pop single from 1979. The lyrics also include the usual Hiatt quirks and metaphors – "You're outrunning my soul / You're EZ-passing my toll."

But only two songs later, there's "The Odds of Loving You", a lazy acoustic blues featuring Hiatt's wizened drawl and Yates McKendree's intoxicating slide guitar licks. Hiatt also manages to find comfortable middle ground between those extremes with a song like "Over the Hill", a bit of low-key funk that throws in some sophisticated Beatlesque melodies, in addition to Hiatt's ever-present ruminations on the aging process ("I'm long in the tooth / What can I say / I take huge bites of life").

Elsewhere, Hiatt is perfectly comfortable rocking out with the loose garage rock of "One Stiff Breeze", as well as dialing it down with the stark folk balladry of "Nothing in My Heart". On the latter, Hiatt sounds particularly gruff and pessimistic. "There's nothing in my heart / There's nothing in my heart / There's just the darkest part / To hide my love away."

While there doesn't seem to be a particular concept at play in the 11 songs, the album's title implies the timeframe of the recording sessions. Hiatt and his band were hard at work in a Nashville studio when the August 2017 solar eclipse traveled across the U.S. "I think we recorded three songs that day," Hiatt says in the album's press release, "And then we took a break to go outside and watch everything happen." He added that the event gave him pause as he considered how the event seemed to stop time. "It was like a magical little bit of time, a harmonic convergence or something. Like everybody was on the same page." Hiatt has also said that The Eclipse Sessions feels like the final part of a trilogy that includes 1987's Bring the Family and 2000's Crossing Muddy Waters. While those three albums each have a distinct feel, they were all conceived in a rather speedy manner with little planning or excessive production. "I didn't know where I was going when I started out on any of them," Hiatt said. "And each one wound up being a pleasant surprise."

The Eclipse Sessions is, in many ways, exactly the kind of album we would expect from John Hiatt, but it's also, as he says, a pleasant surprise. There's plenty of the familiar rootsy musical stylings and sharp wit we expect from him, but unique arrangements also pop out of the woodwork, reaffirming what fans have known for many years – there's nobody quite like John Hiatt.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.