Album: John Hiatt, "Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns" (New West)
John Hiatt is the Flying Dutchman of contemporary heartland rock and roll, or whatever you'd like to label the thing that is that John Hiatt does. No harbor will accept him, and he will stay out on his weird, unknowable mission forever, and this is the only thing we can say for certain about John Hiatt.
And it's a fortunate thing that he does stay out on the seas, too, casting portents and frightening the mermaids: he just keeps getting better at this whole "music" thing as he sails on into the endless sunset. Nearing 60, Hiatt is still, remarkably, in the prime of his career: not even Nolan Ryan had this sort of longevity, and he struck out almost 6,000 hitters. Can you imagine how long it would take to do such a thing?
"Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns," Hiatt's fifth release in his long-lasting and very fruitful alliance with the hands-off-the-artists-please New West label, is in many ways a continuation of the course he set down on last year's "The Open Road"; the songs consist mainly of roaming and longing, and sometimes both things at once. When Hiatt isn't pining for one lost love, he's traveling in a big black Cadillac to another part of America where a different thing reminds him of a different girl back in some different time. Taken as a piece, it evokes the formal image of John Hiatt as a rolling stone, gathering no moss except what he keeps in his songwriting hat. This notion of Hiatt as something of a traveling rascal is nothing new -- he practically cut his teeth back in the mid-'70s as a guy who really wanted you to believe he was dangerous -- but it's an aspect of the artist that has remained dormant since 1995's "Walk On," an album which saw Hiatt come face to face with both his mortality and a trail of ghosts.
"Walk On" was mournful and slow: the singer on the cover of that record hides in silhouette and turns away from the camera. The man who created "Dirty Jeans," however, stands in full sunlight and orders you to slog on through the past. We might as well get started now, he seems to suggest through clenched teeth; we've got to move one way or another. "Damn This Town" is an elegy to a miserable existence. Hiatt's croak rises over martial guitars and an insistent rhythm section and tells you to look past it and keep moving."Damn this town," he spits. "I mean it this time."
The album alternates coolly between angry John and wistful John, with frequent appearances by sly John, and the latter voice tends to dominate, which is usually a good sign on a Hiatt joint. After a somewhat somber "Til I Get My Lovin' Back" (the church organ intro suggests that the singer is still interested in penance on some level, and the song that follows -- "I hide in the darkness / It's all I can do) -- doesn't dispel the notion), Hiatt climbs back into the high seat on the honky-tonk "I Love That Girl" and "All the Way Under," a breezy blues shuffle that stands as one of the set's highlights.
"Detroit Made" finds Hiatt flooring the gas out on the highway, and it's in the latter half of the album that he really begins to explore the map, taking a "Train to Birmingham," saying goodbye to one place ("Adios to California") and thinking about another ("When New York Had Her Heart Broke"). None of this competes with Sufjan Stevens for space in the realm of surrealistic travel brochures ("Hello, my name is Sufjan, and I will be describing the entire history of everything you see out your window for the next six hours") but serve, rather, as impressionistic sketches of places John Hiatt has been, and people John Hiatt has been there with.
Except for the last tune, which is a straight-up 9/11 song, which, I think, nobody was expecting ten years after 9/11. It's not quite "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," but it'll do ("Like a lover she will rise," Hiatt insists, over a U2-like backing groove, "once again to touch the skies"). It's somewhat unsettling, coming as it does here, because of it's sudden turn to the literal on an album that has so much surface area liberally coated with simile. "Down Around My Place," likewise, stumbles slightly from its trajectory as a completely gorgeous song (Hiatt's backing unit on the album is utterly top notch, is has to be noted) to dwell a bit too self-consciously in the sentimental soup of a tale about farms and floods.
Minor quibbles aside, Hiatt remains a powerful figure and an undeniably original American voice. If once, long ago, he seemed like he might be thinking of hanging them up, he's gone far past hiw window of opportunity, if it ever even existed: the John Hiatt who lives in the now looks back and laughs at both the road he's left behind him and the endless road that still lies ahead.