A singer-songwriter better known as the latter but desperate to be famous as the former, John Hiatt stages more comebacks than George Foreman. It happened first in 1987 (Bring the Family, with Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner as his pro "studio sidemen"), then in '90 with Stolen Moments, then again this year with Walk On. Every record's going to make him the star he should have been in 1974, or so says this week's record company, but instead he toils away in major-label obscurity--the journeyman who can't find the keys to the car.
Hiatt is James Taylor if Sweet Baby James hailed from the Midwest and only had a drinking problem instead of a heroin habit. Like Taylor, Hiatt was at his best when writing about the struggle with the personal demons who kept showing up to buy their old pal a drink or six; "Paper Thin," off Slow Turning, was the highlight for the reformed low-life, about a guy who kept falling off his barstool and into the cocktail of "alcohol and fire." As Taylor had done on Gorilla--his one great moment, detox set to a sweet folkie drone--Hiatt found a way to make sobering up the universal experience, personalizing the abstract pain without sentimentalizing or romanticizing the life of the addict.
But (again, like Taylor) when Hiatt found happiness at the bottom of a water glass, he also lost the demons who sat on his shoulder and whispered the words of wisdom into his ear. Stolen Moments, released in 1990, found Hiatt celebrating domesticity, singing happy songs about "Real Fine Love" with the missus and his kids. After that--and the modicum of new-found "success" he found when Bonnie Raitt covered "Thing Called Love" and Emmylou Harris remade "Icy Blue Heart"--Hiatt turned toward heartland rock and roll with Perfectly Good Guitar (ever the young old man, the title song was about a guy shaking his head at the kids who like to smash their guitars). He spent his time writing feel-good would-be hits for the same cult audience, going "grunge" in hopes it would get him on MTV though he couldn't even crack VH1.
Now he comes with Walk On, which is a pale imitation of a Jayhawks record (Mark Olsen and Gary Louris guest on one track, a sad send-off for that under-appreciated and now-defunct band) with its mandolin and steel guitar. Where he was once the guy ahead of the curve (he was doing Elvis Costello three years before Elvis got a deal), Hiatt's now riding with the trend--a country-rocker until next week, so exhausted from changing hats so often he's forgotten how to write songs and instead pulls his lyrics from the cliche songbook. So Hiatt now writes of howling winds blowing through streets where nobody knows your name, tears that fall like rain into rivers that do know your name, love in the air and ashes on the floor, and trains in the night. He can still pull out the occasional ace ("Wrote it Down and Burned It"), but when he does, half a dozen jokers fall out of his sleeve.
John Hiatt performs December 15 at Deep Ellum Live.
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