On Second Listen: John Hiatt – Same Old Man

John Hiatt returned to record stores in mid-2008 with Same Old Man, the eighteenth solo album of his prolific, under-the-radar career. When an artist has been producing stellar work for as long as Hiatt, it’s easy for fans to begin taking that artist somewhat for granted. What’s another solid album? Throw it on the pile with the dozen or so others. And it’s at this point that the great songwriters, like Hiatt, always seem to surprise us with a record that kicks our ass in a completely new way, and that’s exactly what Same Old Man does. It wakes listeners up and lets them know that Hiatt is as good as ever, maybe better than ever.

Legendary set musician and producer Jim Dickinson (The Rolling Stones, The Replacements, Bob Dylan, and Big Star) was at the helm of Hiatt’s critically acclaimed 2005 record, Master of Disaster. On Same Old Man, Hiatt grabs hold of the production reigns, and the result is the most comfortable and natural-sounding record he has made since 2000’s barebones Crossing Muddy Waters. Hiatt’s clear vocals are front and center in the mix, leaving the listener with no doubt about how the record will work. It’s a one-on-one with the master storyteller, with just enough guitar and hooks to carry the weight of his stories.

Same Old Man is a record about relationships but not the young love and hang-ups that so much of rock and roll is focused on. No, this album is about relationships that have weathered storms and endured by the skin of their teeth over the years, all of which gives a glimmer of hope that something might be salvageable, worth hanging on for. Maybe Hiatt says it best. “It’s about second chances. Thank God for second chances.” On Same Old Man, Hiatt examines relationships with two types of songs: songs about where we’ve been and songs about what lies ahead. In this way, Hiatt accomplishes the trick of writing and performing a record that reminisces while also looking decidedly forward.

“Old Days” is a comical romp through Hiatt’s early career that recalls John Lee Hooker’s groupies, bunking on the road with an insane, blind blues musician, and audiences that smoked “something that smelled exactly like cat pee.” “Cherry Red” is a bright and bold pop song that channels old times via a cherry red corvette and showcases Hiatt’s gift for lyrical phrasing. “It was cherry red with custom flames/At the hot rod show when the Kingsmen came/And that bass guitar, it rattled my frame/And it shook you too.” “Our Time”, which is almost a spoken word piece, reminisces about tiny apartments, cheap Chinese takeout, and the deep bond formed between two people while struggling to start a life together.

But the true gems on Same Old Man are the songs about rekindled love and having strength to go on together despite a troubled past. “Love You Again” is a gorgeous, stripped-down song about a wife fighting for a marriage, told through the metaphor of a train roaring down a track. “I was speeding through the dark/I didn’t know how far/It can all run away from you sometimes/In an empty boxcar.” “On With You” is a guitar-driven epiphany of a man who decides all he wants in life is to go on with a woman. “Let’s Give This Love a Try” again shows Hiatt at his lyrical best. Nobody else can write a line like, “Sometimes I don’t like being where I am, no matter what/I’d rather be in a barrel of kosher salt and pickle brine with a thousand paper cuts.” And he delivers a lyric on this song that sums up the idea behind Same Old Man as well as any. “I got just enough left to want to see what’s next/Why don’t we give this love a try.”

It’s always dangerous to assume that an artist’s work is autobiographical, but the honesty, humor, and raw feeling brought to this album leads one to suspect that Hiatt is drawing from personal experience more often than not. And while Same Old Man features a familiar guitar, voice, and charm, it’s clear that John Hiatt has changed quite a bit, and we have one of the most thoughtful records in recent memory to show for it.

I’ll be covering “An Evening With Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt” on February 5th at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall. Be sure to check back for my recap of this performance given by the two legendary songwriters.

John Hiatt – “Love You Again” (Live on Craig Ferguson)


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