When reading about John HIatt you will often read something like "John Hiatt's sales have never quite matched his reputation".
There is truth in that.
But, there is a reason for that.
His albums, and (disclaimer) I have not heard everything (I have not heard any compete albums from the 2000s), are incredibly patchy, despite some magnificent songs.
Other musicians can cherry pick his songs but the public likes their "adult" musicians to have albums solid all the way through (yes, yes, there are many exceptions to prove me wrong)
I have said elsewhere on this blog: "John Hiatt has had a long, schizophrenic career as, variously, a singer-songwriter, a new waver, an AOR dinosaur, a roots rocker, a country rocker, and an adult-contemporary singer".
The albums "Bring the Family" (1987) and "Slow Turning" (1988) changed the tide for him. Before that he was a singer looking for a style, after that he worked out his shtick and stuck to it, a sort of singer songwriter Americana troubadour with rock asides.
All he had to do then was decide in what kind of production to wrap it up.
At least that is the way i see it ….some of his post 80s albums may be wildly different … I don't know, you will have to do the research. A bit annoying for a blog perhaps, but I don't want or need to make assertions which Iam unsure about, and the only way to be sure would be to listen to all those albums.
I my get around to it but …..
For now, I'll stick to my position:
There is a before and an after and both are patchy.
This album came in the searching for a successful sound period.
Check out my other comments for biography but …
It was his fifth album on his third label and he had been recording and playing music since the 1960s ("All of a Sudden" is ironic?).
This is how he ended up on the Geffen label. Geffen had all the nerve of an indie label, with the desire to be major label. The desire, and it probably has something to do with when they emerged (the early 80s), meant they had to be big and slick in sound. And because they were so intent on achieving that their "big and slick" was uber "big and slick". They had forgotten that majors have their ragged on the fringe acts and took (money losing) chances from time to time. Huh, that paragraph has the cadence of a cautionary fairytale.
And maybe it should.
The "big and slick" collided with the "new wave" of the late 70s which changed the technology and the production (for a time) but the labels got hold of the "new wave" , took its stylings and smoothed them out to make them more mass audience friendly.
It worked. Records sold.
So the technology was applied to everything, and every genre, at least in the mainstream.
And that rubbish 80s sound dominated.
Don't get me wrong. The 80s sound, when applied to new bands from the 80s, is passable but when they tried to attach the sound to old acts, singers from a different era , style, personality or temperament the result were awful. Even if there were big sales at the time, to my ears, now, the results are sometimes un-listenable.
I'm sorry there is no nostalgia. I lived through that era and experienced its (mainstream musical) horrors.
You see where I'm going with this.
Labels kept signing Hiatt because other musicians kept recording his songs.
They assumed they could have a breakthrough with him.
Geffen gave him everything. A big release with a hot big producer Tony Visconti (T. Rex, David Bowie), a big contemporary sound, a big slick sound (an even 80s artwork). This is designed to have you dancing. And this is everything Hiatt was not. His best work is not big, but small, or rather quiet, reflective, observant, introspective.
Universally, critics and punters complain about the inappropriateness of this to Hiatt's music.
Who am I to argue?
Well, I have in the past but here I won't.
Techno-pop production values with new wave synth sounds aren't going to appeal to an audience who expected the fusion of American roots styles as had been characterised in earlier Hiatt albums. More importantly, I'm not sure if the sounds and styles used are ever compatible, musically.
As with Hiatt's two previous albums "Slug Line" (1979) and "Two Bit Monster" (1980) this album sounds like a Elvis Costello album from around his "Get Happy" (1980) period, though with bigger production. There are vocal similarities and they both like the same historical source music and themes. This does not surprise as Elvis Costello always had the same root influences as Hiatt but it wasn't immediately obvious to Costello fans during the late 70s New Wave.
The problem here is, I have been largely immune from Mr Costello's numerous charms, even "before" he became an American.
Keyboards dominate and session keyboardist Jesse Harms is the keyboardist. He was in Sammy Hagar's band as well an in REO Speedwagon briefly, none of which helps. That up-tempo new wave keyboard-heavy sound is dated now but was all over the mainstream at the time.
Hiatt's strongest feature wasn't his sound anyway, but his song writing and, sometimes, you have to concentrate on that and not let the sound get in the way.
If you can.
All tracks written by John Hiatt, except where noted
Tracks (best in italics)
- I Look for Love – quite a great song about the dating scene though sunk by the production and keyboards out of a Gary Numan song. Imagine what Nick Lowe could have done with this.
- This Secret Life – another good song with power pop overtones, though, again, I wish the production was different.
- Overnight Story – catchy dance-y tune
- Forever Yours – filler but solid filler.
- Some Fun Now – more Elvis Costello stylings.
- The Walking Dead – great social observations and very Elvis Costello.
- I Could Use an Angel – awful. Here Hiatt is trying to be new wave rather than having those new wave stylings dumped on him.
- Getting Excited – a loner perspective. Quite good and very Nick Lowe.
- Doll Hospital – (Hiatt, Isabella Wood) – I have no idea who the co-writer is but the song has Hiatt's usual cynical humour and an old school rock 'n' roll feel. Very Dave Edmunds. Marvellous.
- Something Happens – actually first released by Dave Edmunds on his "Twangin'" album (1981). It doesn't work here
- Marianne – a retro 60s-ish song. I like this
- My Edge of the Razor – a good song. Nicely observed detail.
A hard one … I have a lot of John HIatt albums in the maybe keep pile, why not add another one?
The songs on this album are, actually, a bit better than his other efforts around the same time, pity about the production… have I mentioned the production?
I Look for Love
The Walking Dead
- I liked both the "Bring the Family" (1987) and "Slow Turning" (1988) albums in the 80s when they came out but haven't listened to them in years so I'm not sure they still stand up. They may but …