Lilly Hiatt is a triple threat musician. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter plays a mean guitar, expressively sings with conviction, and writes brilliant songs that tug at one’s heart and mind. Hiatt has previously released three fine full-length albums, each one better than the one before. She continues that upward streak on Walking Proof, where each of the 11 tracks shines with imaginative playing, spirited vocals, and sensitive, literate lyrics. It’s truly a kick-ass record.
Describing how the sound of an electric guitar in print is difficult. Hiatt is a master at using her instrument in a variety of manners, depending on the song, to express thoughts and emotions that reverberate in a wordless dialogue with the lyrics. She obliquely addresses the topic in the boisterous “Never Play Guitar”, where Hiatt rocks out in a somewhat controlled way while singing about her need for space to create. She requires a place where she can be loud (or soft) to stay sane and thrive. The song implies that it is the men in her life that don’t understand her need for a room (a place to play guitar) of her own. The track also is sonically reminiscent of one by her father, “Perfectly Good Guitar”, about the foolishness of male rock stars who smash their guitars as an act of defiance. The resemblance to Lilly’s dad’s song adds a deeper textural richness to her cut. Still, it is strong enough to hold up on its own as a solid track even if the resemblance is unintentional because she plays a muscular guitar line than brims with energy.
Speaking of her father, John Hiatt contributes to the track “Some Kind of Drug”, the first time he has appeared as a guest on one of his daughter’s albums. (The pair covered each other’s songs for a special Record Store Day release in 2019.) He’s somewhat a ghostly presence one probably wouldn’t notice unless one were listening for his contribution, but because of his well-known battles with addiction, being on this track makes sense. Other guest artists include Aaron Lee Tasjan on guitar and vocals, Amanda Shires on fiddle and vocals, and Luke Schneider. Her band includes John Condt on guitar, Robert Hudson on bass and mandolin, Kate Haldrup on drums, Travis Goodwin on keys, and Lincoln Parish on guitar and keys. Parish (formerly of Cage the Elephant) also produced the record.
Hiatt used to sing in a somewhat conversational style, but she has extended the high end of her register to suggest emotional intensity. On the title cut, she sings at the top of her range about “hearts soaking in kerosene” and being there when someone needs her. She also knows when to be quiet and to keep things low, such as on the ironically titled “Scream”, where she lethargically croons, “And I ain’t slowing down for nobody” in a quiet and leisurely fashion. That makes a convincing counterstatement and reveals her point. One doesn’t have to be loud and fast to articulate internal pain strongly.
As the latter example suggests, Hiatt’s songwriting is consistently nuanced. She often offers direct statements to make a point and then breaks them down to reveal the different strata of what she thinks. She offers telling details about what she observes, whether it’s a roommate who doesn’t close cabinets or a fisherman who sets his catch free to convey what she’s feeling. Hiatt’s not coy. She just refuses to deal with simple thoughts and emotions when everything in life is mixed. This album serves as artistic proof of her complex understanding of herself and her world.