There are lots of songs written about where one was when one’s musical hero died, most notably Don McLean’s “American Pie”, but many other great tunes such as Paul Simon’s “The Late Great Johnny Ace” that conflates the death of the R&B artist with that of former Beatle John Lennon. These songs have great emotional resonance because of their topics. However, as time goes by and more and more rockers die (heck, this year we’ve already lost legends such as Chuck Berry and Gregg Allman, and many other marvelous musicians of lesser renown), it almost seems cliché to write such titles. Why is the death of well-known artist more important than anyone else’s? After all, the pilot of the plane that crashed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper is just as dead as they are. Who remembers him?
Lilly Hiatt reminds us why these deaths matter not only in and of themselves but because of the power they have over us. Her formidable statement of grief and desire, “The Day David Bowie Died”, suggests that the end of a relationship can be marked by the larger picture of events that inadvertently shames us. How can one compare a personal break-up with an international tragedy without feeling tawdry? Hiatt expresses this push and pull of emotions by singing in a raw voice over a brash and choppy electric guitar. Yes, the Thin White Duke has kicked the bucket. My lover has dumped me. Let’s rock.
Hiatt offers a dozen such visceral tracks on her third album. Trinity Lane. The gut-wrenching lyrics offer autobiographical nuggets about past sorrows and unflattering behaviors. She writes and sings in the first person about addictions, bad love and such in a voice scarred and innocent like a sinner reborn. Hallelujah! Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope produced the album and provided a rocking whip-like beat to the songs and rarely allows Hiatt to fall back and reflect. She just sings it as she feels it with the experience of one who now knows better.
So on a song such as naked as “Everything I Had”, Hiatt confesses that she gave too much of herself to an undeserving cad, but she refuses to regret showing her ugliest traits in the service of love. She may proclaim “So Much You Didn’t Know” about herself, but she then offers a litany of life’s benchmarks (i.e., heroin, paralyzing fear, favorite song) without apology. Her sincerity raises the question of how much of what she sings is real and how much is literary license, but it doesn’t much matter. The tracks hold up individually as genuine utterances whose emotional authenticity offers their own reason for existence.
Hiatt provides telling sensory details such as “the smell of garlic” as well as interior reminiscences like “the memory of skin” to ground her songs in our shared reality. The personal nature of the songs makes them specific enough to seem universal. One doesn’t have to be a woman to know the aroma of garlic. It doesn’t matter what color one is to recollect the physicality of a lover’s derma. Just as if it doesn’t count that a certain rock star whose music moved you died on the same day that something else happened; life is filled with love and death. Thantos and Eros, the only unchanging aspect of an everchanging world. Hiatt offers her music as a Memento Mori. You’d have to be out of your skull not to appreciate her talents.