Friday, April 02, 2010

"Wonder of Love" / John Hiatt

While I've been blogging about the classics, the pile of new CDs on my desk has been growing and growing. Time to stop keeping these treasures to myself.

Top of the stack has to be The Open Road, the brand-new release from the old master John Hiatt, one of America's most underrated songwriters. Yeah, yeah, I know he gets plenty of acclaim -- but I still think it's not enough. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, then you just haven't listened to enough John Hiatt.


Let's start with the words (I always start with the words). Hiatt's lyrics are full of arresting phrases, not just clever word play but swiftly-drawn images that crystallize truths about the human heart. Somehow, though -- and this is the genius part, the place where many songwriters go astray -- he does this without getting all fake poetic on us. His language is the language of real people. The opening verse of "Wonder of Love" is a prime example:

Other half of last night's cigar
A couple of Pop Tarts
Cold cup of coffee
There's a fine new start

Now that just makes me grin.

But you know what else? John Hiatt's songs are ABOUT SOMETHING. They're not just about "ooh baby you're so fine" (not that there's anything wrong with that). This album seems to me to be chock full of songs about mortality and morality, about understanding the sap that runs through our lives. I'd say it was a spiritual album, except that would make folks run the other direction. I know, me too -- there's nothing that turns me off faster than the self-congratulatory pieties of some country music. But when I say spiritual, I don't mean gauzy and other-worldly -- I mean spiritual as in "trying to find a higher meaning." That's been a hallmark of Hiatt's music since at least 1995's Walk On (I hear it as far back as 1988 in Slow Turning). Hiatt being Hiatt, of course, he delivers that along with sneaky guitar licks, a bluesy rock groove, and grizzled vocals full of bite and sass. You're so busy rocking out, it's entirely possible to enjoy it without having to get that spiritual dimension.

Back to "Wonder of Love," then. It's entirely possible to enjoy this as a romantic love song -- when he sings, "I'm gonna find you / If it breaks my heart," naturally we assume he's talking about finding his woman. But then you get a verse like the third one, where he sings (in his gravelliest voice), "I'm afraid if I go with you / Won't come back again / What would we be leaving / This breakfast of champions." Maybe he's talking about death, maybe not -- I don't know. But could be.

He follows that up with one of those tender domestic scenes Hiatt does so well: "I've been looking for you all these years / Sittin' across this kitchen table here / You pass the sugar and suddenly it all comes clear / It's the wonder of love that' s showin'." Now there, he is clearly singing about his wife. (Who else but Hiatt writes so convincingly about married happiness? Okay, Marshall Crenshaw, but who else?) But then it strikes me -- maybe he is singing about both. They aren't mutually exclusive -- in fact, it could be that his happy home convinces him of the presence of God.

Listen to the prayer scene in the final verse. "I got down on my knees last night / And I thanked someone / For the chance for two people / To try and live together and not run." It sounds like so little -- but it is a huge thing to be grateful for. Only somebody who's got it -- and who's been through hell getting there -- knows what a gift true love can be.

Okay, he's not ramming it down our throats. If you want to see this just as a love song to his wife, go ahead. That's a fine enough thing. It's enough just to enjoy the humorous, quirky rasp of Hiatt's voice, the slouchy shuffle of the song's changeable rhythms, those sweet yearning chord shifts. Like he says in the chorus, "It's a wonder of love / Keeps me up above ground / The wonder of love / Keeps me looking all around" -- love keeps you rooted to this earth, curious about what's next. And if John Hiatt's taking the journey with us, hey, I know I'll enjoy it just that much more.


Joseph Conlin said...

Nice blog.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks, Joe. Hey, are you the same Joe Conlin I used to work with at Successful Meetings?

NickS said...

By the way, I referenced this post today talking about Chris Smither whom you might enjoy.

tim said...

I just found your blog today. Wow, I'm very impressed. And then I find out you are a big John Hiatt fan. Isn't he the best. I recently picked up a cd of Hanging around the Observatory. It finally got re-released on CD. It was Johns first album and his write was clear and clean right from the start. I'd love to talk music with you some time when we each have a month or so.
Thanks for the blog. I can't wait to read all four years of it.
Tim Harmon

tim said...


I forgot to mention how much I like your photo on this blog. Very very cute!
Tim Harmon

Holly A Hughes said...

Aw, thanks, Tim. I'd love to hear some of your comments throughout the blog. We could talk music for ages, nothing would make me happier.

A couple years ago, I waited for John Hiatt after a show here in New York and, after thanking him for the performance, mentioned I'd gone to #84. His eyes immediately lit up. "You were going to hell!" he said. "That's what the Immaculate Heart nuns used to tell us. They'd point out the windows and say, 'See those kids at that school over there? They're going to hell.' We'd say, 'But Sister, they're just kids like us!' And nuns would shake their heads and say, 'No, they're going to hell.'" He got a real kick out of telling me that story -- and I sure got a kick out of him telling me it.