Terms Of My Surrender

John Hiatt

New West Records, 2014


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


How could you possibly say no to a guy who rhymes “John Lee Hooker” with “old meat cooker”? These and other existential questions await the listener to John Hiatt’s 22nd studio album Terms Of My Surrender.

A songwriter’s songwriter whose warehouse full of gems has been raided by many a canny cover artist, the prolific Hiatt is still the best interpreter of his own work. Yes, the voice is gravelly and worn, but he writes to its crags and gullies and delivers his tunes into the world with complete conviction. Ever the chameleon, Hiatt’s music is Americana in the sense that he embraces many different genres of American music, including folk, blues, country and rock, on this particular outing mostly inhabiting an acoustic blues groove.

It’s a dusty, homey sound that provides the sonic backdrop for a set of songs that ranks highly even among Hiatt’s remarkable oeuvre. Opener “Long Time Comin’” is a restless, gorgeous elegy for a life lived on the road, with a quiet start full of tension that’s eventually broken by big drums and guitar. “Nobody Knew His Name” is a stunning, novelistic masterpiece of a story-song about a nameless, emotionally shattered veteran trying to build a new life as a civilian, only to find himself “Cryin’ by the side of the tracks.” And the back-porch stomper “Baby’s Gonna Kick” is indeed a kick and a half, as lovable rogue John confesses his sins while expressing his certainty that “My baby’s gonna kick me out some day.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The memorable lines come fast and furious from Hiatt’s ever-voluble lips. For example: “They say God is the devil until you look him in the eye” (the straight country-blues “Face Of God”); “You’ve got me talkin’ that baby talk” (“Marlene,” a lilting love song with an indefinable island flavor to the melody); and “There ain’t nothin’ I love good for me but you” (“Nothin’ I Love”). On the rascally title track, Hiatt confesses he’s “Scared I’ll get what I deserve / Or maybe scared I won’t” before deploying a playful falsetto as he prepares to throw in the towel: “I love you too much baby / Go on and have your way with me.”

Hiatt is above all an honest confessor of his own shortcomings, spending a lot of time on this particular album begging for his woman either to come back, or not to leave, or not to kick him out. He knows he’s trouble, but he just can’t help himself, and at the end of a day, he’s just the sort of rumpled romantic to declare “My love is here to stay” and plead “I wish you’d come back home.”

Hiatt, sticking to his acoustic this time around, is well-supported throughout by his terrific band: Kenneth Blevins (drums), Nathan Gehri (bass) and Doug Lancio (guitar), who also produces. The mostly spare sound is filled out at times with help from Brandon Young (background vocals) and Jon Coleman (keyboards).

The old manual typewriter featured on the back of the album packaging illustrates Hiatt’s ethos perfectly. As a songwriter, Hiatt never overreaches; he keeps it simple and direct, yet every line feels lovingly hand-crafted. His songs are poetic but never fussy, and spiced with a prickly, incisive wit. Terms Of My Surrender is Hiatt at his best: a witty rogue, a hard-luck poet, a road-weary sage of the art of the song.

Rating: A-

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