The work of the consummate songwriter John Hiatt has over the past decade eroded to a more elemental form than that of his earlier days. Over the past decade it’s been, for me, something of a challenge to evaluate Hiatt’s post-Crossing Muddy Waters albums in the context of his naturally polished songs of the ’80s and ’90s, the great work that made him a songwriters’ songwriter and a hitmaker for artists like The Jeff Healey Band (“Angel Eyes”), Bonnie Raitt (“Thing Called Love”), and Eric Clapton and B.B. King (“Riding with the King”). But this new “Best of 2000-2012” collection from New West Records offers a good opportunity to do just that.
As an avid fan of the mix of country-rock, blues, and soul on Hiatt’s peak-period albums like Slow Turning, Perfectly Good Guitar, Walk On, and Little Head, I still remember the shock when I first cracked open my copy of 2000’s Crossing Muddy Waters and listened to the stripped-down, mostly acoustic Americana setting he’d created for this self-produced collection of uniformly brilliant songs. Here to Stay begins with two of these, the gentle title track and the rough-edged, gospel-inspired “Lift Up Every Stone.” Crossing became and remains one of my favorite albums by any artist.
For his next two releases Hiatt returned to a brighter, heavier, full-band sound featuring his on-and-off band The Goners, which included slide master Sonny Landreth. His songwriting veered to focus on the rewards (and troubles) of long-term relationships, though he also continued to derive inspiration from the depths of drinking and drugs he’d known well earlier in his life. The warm “My Old Friend” and the grim hard rocker “Everybody Went Low” from The Tiki Bar is Open encapsulate this duality. Together with “My Baby Blue” from Beneath This Gruff Exterior, they showcase Hiatt’s gift for pop hooks, while “Circle Back” calls to mind the hyperdrive of the much earlier “Tennessee Plates” (Charlie Sexton’s version of which was featured in the bar scene of the movie Thelma and Louise). But the newer track doesn’t have the same catchiness.
For 2005’s Master of Disaster Hiatt linked up with producer Jim Dickinson and the North Mississippi All Stars (featuring Dickinson’s sons Luther and Cody), who also served as his backing band for at least one tour. His voice sounds achingly strained on the haunting, insistent “Love’s Not Where We Thought We Left It,” a song with a sneaky kind of hookiness. The title track, also included here, is the kind of character study Hiatt perfected in his earlier classic “Perfectly Good Guitar.”
He stripped things down again for 2008’s self-produced Same Old Man, which featured some mellow love songs. Appropriately for their settled-in quality, the two here feature Hiatt’s daughter Lilly on harmony vocals. But the rock edge returns, with Doug Lancio’s humming, trebly guitar leads, for the two selections from 2010’s The Open Road, and for the grim “Damn This Town” from Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns. “Adios to California,” on the other hand, has a subtly winning folky feel.
The simple, catchy “We’re Alright Now,” back on the long-term-relationship theme, shows Hiatt hasn’t lost his knack for creating hooks out of basic materials. Together with the despairing but forthrightly melodic “Blues Can’t Even Find Me” it proves the master’s vital songwriting force may have mellowed but has in no way deserted him. And the blues sure did find him for the closing track, “Here to Stay,” which features mind-blowing playing from Joe Bonamassa. Recorded for Dirty Jeans but unreleased till now, it rocks and rolls with liquid energy.
After listening a few times to these well-chosen “best ofs” from the master’s latest-stage albums, I’ve concluded that I hadn’t given 21st century John Hiatt his due, and this was at least in part because I’d internalized his earlier work as canonical songwriting of the highest order. But if you take this sizable later body of work on its own terms, it’s clear he had, and has, plenty of good stuff left in the tank.