Photo: David McClister / Courtesy of New West Records

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

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.

RATING 8 / 10