John Hiatt: Terms of My Surrender

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John Hiatt: Terms of My Surrender

“Sometimes love can be so wrong/ Like a fat man in a thong/ It walks shamelessly away,” John Hiatt intones over the sauntering acoustic blues of the title track on his 22nd studio recording in 40 years. As the man who once wrote, “She says help the starving children to get well/ But let my brother’s hamster burn in hell,” this turn of phrase is hardly shocking; but where “Your Dad Did” was an ironic look at Ozzie and Harriet family values, “Terms of Surrender” plumbs the depths of doubt, love and commitment with temerity.

Hiatt, once pegged as the Elvis Costello of LA’s roots-punk movement anchored by X, the Blasters and Los Lobos, has grown into a roots-soul man. Gone is the seethe that powered “Pink Bedroom” and “She Loves the Jerk.” Instead he’s embraced an evolved introspectiveness with a sense of humor, weighing his existential issues without losing light.

“Old People,” slathered in slide and delivered with a muddy growl, says the unthinkable about the pushiness that defines senior citizens desperate to stay in this realm. The churning “Baby’s Gonna Kick” is a bawdy grind that invokes John Lee Hooker, shuffles with carnal intent and metaphors like “slow meat cooker” in wildly creative ways.

Not everything is as adroit. The Celtic-feeling “Wind Don’t Have To Hurry” with its banjo plink and roll, churning pocket and husky vocal suggests malice to come, a sideways look at police states that implies we’re not as far from what he sings as we might believe. The gently finger-picked, laconic “Nobody Knew His Name” suggests John Prine’s use of a life’s tiny details—hotwalking at Suffolk Downs, an old black Cadillac parked off to the side, the death of his friend when his rifle jammed—to stitch a portrait of the cast-off Vietnam vet with quiet pathos.

Jovial hijinks have always dwarfed Hiatt’s caressing emotional sense. As the title track suggests, this is not about being a sensitive guy, but man enough to own one’s emotions and stand tall in the doubt.

After the exultant “Marlene,” the aching “Face of God,” even the creeping cautionary “Nothin’ I Love,” the notion of staying seems to be what defines the 61-year old’s barest, most organic work in years. “Here To Stay”’s murky blues beseeches a gone lover’s return, while the cheerier “Come Back Home” tackles the same with a bit more hope amidst the havoc. It’s not the housekeeping or the nookie, Hiatt’s smoky voice suggests, so much as the bonds that can’t be conjured that matter most.