Lilly Hiatt’s new album Walking Proof may prove to one of 2020’s most universally relatable thanks to a single line on the chorus of “P-Town”: “Don’t you hate when people say it is what it is?” Unless you’re Joe Pesci in The Irishman and you’re adding in a contraction, there’s never a time when “it is what it is” benefits the person you’re saying it to: You’re better off with either a shrug (or a shrug emoji). They’re useless gestures, but at least they’re transparently useless.
Think about the last time you had a shitty day and an acquaintance told you that you were fated to have a shitty day, so you might as well accept the shit; you’ll find yourself wishing “P-Town” had existed at the time so you could shake off that flaccid old bromide with big, swaggering guitar riffs and swelling electric organ. This is music to liberate yourself to-music that reminds listeners of Americana’s versatility as a genre and the palliative effects a good, expressive rock song can have on the soul. We’ve all taken a road trip that wound up going wrong, whether the kind of wrong where everything goes off the rails or the sort where everyone’s out of sync and nothing’s as fun as it’s supposed to be.
That’s the heart of “P-Town” specifically, but the spiritual relief derived from rock ’n’ roll and Americana makes up Walking Proof’s whole. It’s baked into the record from start to finish: “I throw caution to the wind, and don’t give a damn,” Hiatt chimes on the record’s opener “Rae,” a twangy tune about the dual pleasures of pretending to be someone other than who you are and having someone in your life who knows you on a molecular level. There’s a caution to “Rae” in its first 45 or so seconds that belies Walking Proof’s prevailing confidence: Hiatt’s voice rings so quietly, so meekly, that for but a moment it feels like she’s tricking her audience. Walking Proof is, after all, neither quiet nor meek, though it does have its share of hushed tracks.
But even at its most mellow, the album has strength. When Hiatt leans more toward Americana’s country roots, like on “Candy Lunch,” she’s still standing tall and straight. There’s a real sense of pride in every song she’s written here. “Candy Lunch,” in keeping with Hiatt’s identity motif, articulates that pride with the airy reverb of a classic country ballad, evoking open night skies as she embraces her inner oddball: “I’ve always done my own weird thing / And sometimes that means I want candy for my lunch.” Your dentist won’t approve, but your soul will. Hiatt isn’t advocating ruining your appetite with a grip full of peanut butter cups; she’s just telling listeners that they’re better off just being themselves, and she’s telling them in her own weird way.
Walking Proof’s balanced blend of quirk, confidence and craftsmanship make it a 2020 standout, both within the sphere of Nashville’s rich music scene and without. The genre flexibility doesn’t hurt: Though Hiatt’s work here arguably favors Americana’s rock roots more than others, there’s a healthy dose of Courtney Barnett, Tom Petty and Dinosaur Jr. that shapes the record’s sound. But the way Hiatt’s songwriting invites the listener to think about their own sense of self by inviting them to surrender to rock ’n’ roll’s freeing release is positively electrifying.
Walking Proof climbs peaks and descends valleys, strutting from “P-Town” to “Little Believer” to “Brightest Star,” then cooling out on “Candy Lunch” and “Walking Proof.” She stomps on “Never Play Guitar,” the track that may best drive home her thoughts on her persona, because where would she be—and where would her audience be?—if she’d never picked up an axe in her life? We’d be robbed of Walking Proof and rock’s liberating spirit, that’s for damn certain.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.
Revisit Lilly Hiatt’s 2017 Paste session: