Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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John Hiatt

  • Hangin' Around the Observatory [Epic, 1974] B
  • Overcoats [Epic, 1975] B
  • Slug Line [MCA, 1979] B+
  • Two Bit Monsters [MCA, 1980] B
  • All of a Sudden [Geffen, 1982] B-
  • Riding With the King [Geffen, 1983] A-
  • Warming Up to the Ice Age [Geffen, 1985] B
  • Bring the Family [A&M, 1987] B-
  • Slow Turning [A&M, 1988] B+
  • Y'All Caught?: The Ones That Got Away 1979-1985 [Geffen, 1989] B+
  • Perfectly Good Guitar [A&M, 1993] Choice Cuts
  • The Best of John Hiatt [Capitol, 1998] B+
  • Greatest Hits: The A&M Years '87-'94 [A&M, 1999] *
  • Same Old Man [New West, 2008] Choice Cuts
  • Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns [New West, 2011] **
  • Terms of My Surrender [New West, 2014] **

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Hangin' Around the Observatory [Epic, 1974]
Hiatt is a Midwestern boy who wrings off-center rock and roll out of a voice with lots of range, none of it homey. Reassuring to hear the heartland Americana of the Band actually inspire a heartlander. Reassuring too that one of the resulting songs can be released as a single by Three Dog Night. B

Overcoats [Epic, 1975]
I admit to a weakness for loony lyrical surrealist protest rockers. And I admit that this one tends to go soft when he tries to go poetic. I even admit that he has a voice many would consider worse than no voice at all (although that's one of the charms of the type). But I insist that anyone who can declaim about killing an ant with his guitar "underneath romantic Indiana stars" deserves a shot at leading man status in Fort Wayne. B

Slug Line [MCA, 1979]
This hard-working young pro may yet turn into an all-American Elvis C. He's focused his changeable voice up around the high end and straightened out his always impressive melodies, but he has a weakness for the shallow (if sincere) putdown, e.g.: "You're too dumb to have a choice." Or else he'd get chosen, do you think he means? Lene Lovich: should cover "You're My Love Interest." B+

Two Bit Monsters [MCA, 1980]
Stupid that they're comparing this perennial future cult hero to Elvis C.--Hiatt beat Costello to his voice, such as it is, by four years. Still, a lyric like "Back to the War," which sounds bitterly political and was probably inspired by an errant lover or business associate, makes me think twice, as does the impenetrable "New Numbers." When Costello is impenetrable, which is usually, he makes it look clever. And when Hiatt is penetrable, which is also usually, his cleverness varies. B

All of a Sudden [Geffen, 1982]
Carpers have always claimed there was nothing underneath his gift for the hook, and now that Hiatt's finally gotten his big shot, on David G.'s label with David B.'s producer, he seems intent on proving it. Median cut length is up from 2:55 (on 1979's Slug Line) to 3:31, Tony Visconti has dehumanized Hiatt's uncommercial voice with filters that make him sound like a Hoosier Steve Strange, and even his cover photo has been reduced to benday dots. The veteran up-and-comer as overblown cynic. B-

Riding With the King [Geffen, 1983]
With well-respected albums on three major labels and boosters from Three Dog Night to Ry Cooder, Hiatt must be doing something wrong. Singing is my guess--just like Ry, he's immersed himself in the mannerisms of soul without enjoying access to its physical substance. But in the end this is his best album because the songs are so much his catchiest and pithiest. Most of them reflect smashed hopes. The tenderest is called "She Loves the Jerk." And of course the jerk ain't John. A-

Warming Up to the Ice Age [Geffen, 1985]
Commercial failure hasn't touched Hiatt's devotion to craft, but it's been hell on his sense of humor. He still cracks wise while rolling out the hooks, but the sprightly feel of Riding With the King has given way to a soulish hard rock that suggests he's satirizing all these bitter macho men in the first person because satire isn't the main idea. B

Bring the Family [A&M, 1987]
"I don't think Ronnie Milsap's gonna ever/Record this song," moans the wandering pro on the lead cut, which announces his intention to go get "good and greasy" in Memphis before subjecting himself to "one more heartfelt steel guitar chord" in the Music City he calls home. But now more than ever he seems to derive his idea of good and greasy from, I don't know, Joe Cocker, which only works when he makes nasty. Well-written though it may be, most of this is Ronnie Milsap's kind of thing. B-

Slow Turning [A&M, 1988]
Cut with his road band rather than a select cast of studio heavies, which probably took some pressure off a perpetual comer who turns the juice up too high when he gets nervous. Anyway, the high-grade country fodder--"Is Anybody There?" to a woman who loves him, "Georgia Rae" to a newborn daughter, and so forth--goes down easier. And the mean stuff he's always been best at--a roving couple who shoot up an automatic teller for laundromat change, a roving couple who steal one of Elvis's Cadillacs, a guy who cheats the world just like his daddy did--has a properly rowdy edge. B+

Y'All Caught?: The Ones That Got Away 1979-1985 [Geffen, 1989]
"She Said the Same Things to Me" and "It Hasn't Happened Yet" are winning answers to the wimmin question, and every time they come up I feel like I love this male chauvinist victim. But not so's I pull out Warming Up to the Ice Age or Two Bit Monsters. The rest of his greatest misses are catchy, clever, even compassionate when you listen hard. Three are from Riding With the King, which I did go find--and still prefer. B+

Perfectly Good Guitar [A&M, 1993]
"Perfectly Good Guitar"; "Buffalo River Home" Choice Cuts

The Best of John Hiatt [Capitol, 1998]
Master of a Nashville-Memphis fusion that is all of rock and roll to his own generation and totally cornball to the next, this Springsteen-writ-small has always yoked Grade A songwriting to Brand X singing, and by now it's clear the limitation is as much intellectual as physical. Almost every individual selection here connects, the wedding plea "Have a Little Faith in Me" no less than the bank-robbing saga "Tennessee Plates." But though one doesn't negate the other--life is long, and various--Hiatt's ever more skillful shows of soul can't make them cohere, because at bottom he has nothing to say. All things considered, he might have been better off with less voice, not more. Then he wouldn't have been tempted to juggle career options on that endless road. He'd have settled into the well-heeled life of a Music Row pro. Alan Jackson would record his songs. B+

Greatest Hits: The A&M Years '87-'94 [A&M, 1999]
Tuneful, what else, but beware: Capitol cherry-picked these already ("The Rest of the Dream," "Real Fine Love"). *

Same Old Man [New West, 2008]
"Old Days," "Our Time" Choice Cuts

Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns [New West, 2011]
Decades past his last outright keeper and 60 this year, he continues to roll out listenable collections like he'll never stop ("Don't Wanna Leave You Now," "Damn This Town," "Detroit Town") **

Terms of My Surrender [New West, 2014]
Encroaching decrepitude suits him so well vocally that he eggs one of the funniest songs ever written about old age into taking the piss out of a gaggle of musicians who can't grow up ("Old People," "Terms of My Surrender") **