Who is John Hiatt?
It's a question that has been raised many times, sometimes unfairly, by others.
I have asked it, in a round about way, myself (see my other comment), but cut him slack because he deserves it.
Hiatt has critical status as a songwriter’s songwriter. Okay, that doesn't count for much but he has been playing guitar since he was 11, was a professional songwriter at 18, had his first hit ("Sure As I'm Sittin' Here" a #16 (US) for Three Dog Night) at 22, and has released 21 (mostly) critically acclaimed albums over 40 years. He has been covered by dozens of artists, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, The Searchers, Delbert McClinton, Willy DeVille, Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Joe Bonamassa, Joan Baez, Paula Abdul, Buddy Guy, the Desert Rose Band, Jimmy Buffett, Mandy Moore, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Rosanne Cash, Suzy Bogguss, Jewel, Aaron Neville, Jeff Healey, Keith Urban, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan, Paulini and others.
But, despite that, and many good songs, the question "Who is John Hiatt?" is a valid one.
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.
And this album does not help. Prior to this album, and subsequently, Hiatt would change styles every couple of albums or so but here he changes styles during the course of the album and it seems to be intentional.
Side One was produced by Ron Nagel and Scott Mathews (both of the Durocs), with Hiatt singing and playing guitar and Mathews handling everything else whilst Side Two produced by Hiatt's friend, Nick Lowe (who played on it also) with a band assembled from Lowe's touring unit (which included Paul Carrack, ex-Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont, Bobby Irwin). Hiatt and Lowe would work often and even formed a band "Little Village" in the early 90s.
Hiatt is now 63 and he was 31 when this album was recorded and the album has many fine songs but suffers from the musical schizophrenia. Side One is (mainly) new wave spit and bile though surrounded in big 80s production (clearly a grab for commercial success … akin to the Cars or Huey Lewis). Side Two is more rootsy (even swampy) with a 50s retro vibe and more relaxed. The songs, generally, are sharp, cynical and filled with detail though ultimately there is something lacking and not just because of the schizophrenic sides. Hiatt's voice is passable but not spectacular and his emotions are occasionally restrained which is not a good thing because they sometimes feel like a "front" which is something you see in many English rockers where technique replaces emotion.
There have been many comparisons between Hiatt and Anglo rockers Graham Parker and, especially, Elvis Costello, which are apt. Hiatt's career at one time was not dissimilar to Costello's and one could say, though people rarely do, "Who is Elvis Costello"?
This is an aside, but, Costello doesn't seem to be tainted with the same brush as Hiatt when it comes to his musical pond lily skipping. Maybe it's because he is English and the American Anglophiles always admire what they perceive to be an intellectual musician (yeh, whatever) testing his talents over a number of styles. And, when it comes to intellectual rock musicians (and this is an aside within an aside) they are, predominantly, English. It's as if they have adopted that stereotype whereas the Americans have been stereotyped as visceral. That is rubbish but I note that (mainly), on stage, the English are certainly (inertly) intellectual and the Americans are (spectacularly) visceral. I suspect though, that in Costello's genre skipping we can accept it because, deep down, we know he isn't American so he can jump from one American musical idiom to another without local cynicism.
The answer to the question "Who is John Hiatt?" should be "Whoever he wants to be" and if that contains some of the reasons for his lack of major success then that is entirely a matter for him.
For us, there are enough joys, but we have to look a little harder.
Check out my other comment for biographical details.
Tracks (best in italics)
- I Don't Even Try – this one spits a little though the keyboards are too tinkly.
- Death by Misadventure – (Hiatt, John Hadley) – co-written with Hadley a professional songwriter.
- Girl on a String – not dissimilar to a Nick Lowe song (despite) the fact that he produces the other side. A good song only let down by the keyboards, again.
- Lovers Will – a mid tempo ballad.
- She Loves the Jerk – a folky rock number that again sounds like a Nick Lowe number and could have used Nick Lowe on backing.
- Say It with Flowers – more spit with some great lyrics ("You believe nearly everything you hear/That kind of faith is gonna only bring tears") but the backing music is distinctly fisher price.
- Riding with the King – The song came about when (side one) producer Scott Mathews recounted to Hiatt a strange and abstract dream he had of flying on an airplane with Elvis Presley, apparently. A mainstream swampy ("mainstream swampy" – sic) number which has a nice little groove going on it.
- You May Already Be a Winner – another Lowe/Costello sounding number and a winner (sic).
- Love Like Blood – more faux swamp. Pleasant but unmemorable.
- The Love that Harms – a jaunt which is a toe tapper.
- Book Lovers – (Isabella Wood, Hiatt) – Wood was Hiatt's wife (she died in 1985 at age 30). Nice and quite bouncy.
- Falling Up – a Bo Diddley beat rip off on this great retro rootsy hoot.
Unsure, it is quite good (despite its faults) … I may keep it, I may not.
I Don't Even Try
Death by Misadventure
Girl on a String
She Loves the Jerk
Say It with Flowers
Riding with the King
You May Already Be a Winner
Love Like Blood
The Love that Harms
- The title song was later covered (with reworked lyrics by Hiatt) by B.B. King and Eric Clapton on their album of the same name from 2000.