"Minutes turn to days/ Years just melt away"
"The past is over every day"
John Hiatt "My Baby Blue" and "Fly Back Home"
Beneath this Gruff Exterior (2003) is John Hiatt's 17th album, and the first in which he shares top billing with his long-time band the Goners. Listening to the lyrics and their sentiments it seems that this is a 50 year-old's mid life crisis record. It's full of references to "time melting away" and bad karma. The record works because it's feeling plays well with Hiatt, who I always compared to Warren Zevon - the difference being that Zevon sustains his melancholy and wry wit while Hiatt only goes to it on some of his songs.
So other than the references to time flying by, how is this Hiatt's midlife crisis album? Well, for one there is an ode to his dog, "My Dog and Me" (which is the weakest song on the record in my opinion) there is a song talking about a stale marriage, "The Most Unoriginal Sin" and secondly, in comparison to his previous album The Tiki Bar is Open this new work is deeply ponderous.
But all of this introspection works well for Hiatt whose gritty baritone fits the lyrics well, and in the best songs complements Sonny Landreth's light and freewheeling slide guitar.
The first single "My Baby Blue", which certainly has the catchiest hook, has Landreth riffing on top of Hiatt's rhythm guitar as he sings:
We discovered love
In the basements of
Some of my best friends
I've never seen again.
Then calling out longingly in the chorus
My Baby Blue, my baby blue
I keep calling to you.
My baby blue
In another of the better songs on the record - "Circle Back
" - Hiatt calls out not to a past love but to the world in general in his despair that his daughter
is leaving home.
Well its 99 in Topeka
The wind is blowin' hot
Blowin though my oldest daughter's hair
With everything else I forgot
I dove her out to college
Drove back though an empty space
Thinkin' back to when she was a baby
Tryin' hard to see to see that face
Finally after reminiscing about past loves, Hiatt
is left to assess where he is in the world and how it is swirling around him. What does he find? A world rapidly changing, and not for the better.
Saw a red tailed hawk eatin' road kill
Said "Man, what happened to your dignity?
He said, "Subdivisions have taken my home
And there's no more prey to eat."
I said "Where we gonna live?"
He said, "Anywhere you want to I guess."
Later, Hiatt comes into contact with a snake that leaves him with the same feelings of dread.
There was a rattlesnake up on the road
I ran him over and over 'til he died
Then his ghost rose up
And curled around this fear I hold inside.
As I sat there in my instrument of death
I had to think what I was doin'
I had to think just to draw another breath
Perhaps I am reading too much into these words but I think Hiatt
is both the hawk
, which no longer has a home and is later the person who killed the snake. He feels out of control in the world that is changing - and then later indicts
himself for making the changes that leave him so unsettled.
Now that I have unraveled the meaning in some of these songs (I think) I should point out to the reader who may doubt that this is an enjoyable record to listen to - it is. As I mentioned above, Hiatt's voice is deep and interesting to listen to, and the musicianship of his band the Goners is excellent - particularly Sonny Landreth's virtuoso guitar work which is inspired. (Landreth is a great solo artist in his own right and I suggest for anyone interested in cajun- zydeco music to look for his albums particularly Levee Town.) If you are interested in a solid bluesy, roots rock/Americana album that tackles the subject of the deep-seated unease that develops as you get older, you will like this album a lot.