Friday, May 30, 2008

"Our Time" / John Hiatt

I got me some new John Hiatt, and oh, it sure is fine.

I say new because this album, Same Old Man (I love that self-deprecating title), was released last Tuesday. On first listen it's deeply familiar, like a pair of already broken-in jeans -- the twangy rhythms, the countrified blues of the guitars (whether it's him or Luther Dickinson at any given moment), the weathered gruffness of John's soulful voice, all the the trademark elements are here. But the more I listen, I realize that this is new Hiatt territory. He may be the Same Old Man at heart, but he's not resting on his laurels.

Hiatt often tells interviewers that Bob Dylan was one of his first influences, but I've never heard much Dylan resonating in Hiatt's music -- until now. Suddenly Dylan's DNA seems all over the place (I'm talking the good fun Dylan, like Nashville Skyline). You can hear it in "Our Time", a slightly surreal sketch of scenes from a relationship. Hiatt describes it with wonderful economy of detail -- a Sunday morning reading the papers in a New York loft (not your usual Hiatt setting), devouring Chinese takeout in bed, sharing a pupu platter in Nashville -- jump-cutting from episode to episode with the hallucinatory logic of memory. "I wrapped myself up in it like a cold beef roast," he recalls, "fell asleep, was cooked medium and placed on a dining table in Brooklyn." We have no idea if they're still together, but I'm betting they aren't sure either.

And like Dylan often does, he crams in the lyrics like crazy, overstuffing the beats of the line. "I flashed back to you giving dollars to homeless men on the Bowery," he rambles, "Not before they convinced you it was for sandwiches and not for wine." And in another verse, "I woke up in a cold sweat and realized we'd never cooked one meal together" -- a fact that seems irrelevant, except that nothing seems irrelevant to two people inside a relationship. It's those odd details that put us inside the relationship, a Dylan trick if there ever was one.

On the other hand, its air of tender nostalgia is much more Hiatt than Dylan -- and that's what really hooks me in. Though it's got a talking-blues texture, the melody lifts to a lovely crooning wail in the middle of each verse; John half-misses the note, but somehow that works with the sincere huskiness of his singing. It's all tucked up in an acoustic package, with a folky two-step syncopation, and embellished with mandolin (Luther Dickinson again). I love the fact that John Hiatt knows when to leave well enough alone -- this song simply is what it is, and that's totally charming.

Our Time sample

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