Terms of My Surrender
"I guess we all have dreams floating on feathers," John Hiatt sings in Come Back Home, a song of separation near the end of Terms of My Surrender. The sentiment is both passive and deflating, a shadow from the darker side of a songwriting psyche with a front-row seat to the human condition. Color that with the low, scorched tone of his singing and the light, rustic tone of the instrumentation, and you have a portrait of the 21st-century Hiatt at work.
Well, you have one portrait.
Hiatt might sound as if he belongs to an elder school of hard knocks on Terms of My Surrender. But, as has always been the case with his recordings — especially the remarkable string of nine albums he has issued over the past 15 years — Hiatt wears the comedic mask as much as the tragic one. Two songs earlier, on Here to Stay, brittle guitars sway in bluesy simpatico, preaching romantic salvation and familial faith in the face of desolation ("Even your pride is gonna leave you; my love is here to stay"). And in a wily instance of roots-rock diplomacy called Baby's Gonna Kick, Hiatt takes a whimsical pass at domestic distrust that is revealed when the title's full intent unfolds in the chorus ("My baby is gonna kick me out someday").
Such are the peripheral glances of domesticity that Hiatt serves up throughout Terms Of My Surrender. The wiry, rootsy backdrops Hiatt designs with producer-guitarist Doug Lancio nicely compliment all the emotional fence-straddling, too. But even in that context, the album offers a few surprises.
When the troubled skies clear for the baby-talk parlor piece Marlene, Hiatt and Lancio create a light, summery sing-along. Then, during the title tune to Terms of My Surrender, the sound turns to slow jazz while the mood becomes whimsical enough for Hiatt to summon a truly distinctive metaphor for the lovelorn ("my heart is so heavy, like a stack of Bibles").
Still, the sound and imagery permeating the record is the blues. Hiatt began leaning more in that direction with 2008's Same Old Man. But on the new album's most arresting tune, Face of God, Hiatt gets worldly (perhaps even otherworldly) with a brittle acoustic meditation that strives to find the balance between earthy suffering and spiritual release.
Nothin' I Love is a more earthbound reverie with a dirty, dirty, dirty guitar riff and a sense of playful confession fit for a priest ("I keep-a slink-slack-slidin' down a slippery slope").
Ever since Bring the Family redefined his career more than 25 years ago, Hiatt has sounded remarkably comfortable in the well-worn skin he calls home. The stories on Terms of My Surrender aren't autobiographical, but they are told with enough crusty, curmudgeonly zeal to make Hiatt the master of all the bliss and wreckage before him.
Walter Tunis, Contributing music critic