I enjoy John Hiatt's recordings in the same way I make allowances for such singers as Elvis Costello and Graham Parker — both of whom sing better than Hiatt, and both of whom are very idiosyncratic vocal stylists. Lest you chastise me for my lack of fellow feeling for these beloved figures, let me say that I am not an elitist when it comes to pop-music voices. You don't have to sound like Caetano Veloso to make me like you, but Hiatt's voice is an ugly thing that is well-suited for expressing the sentiments on his new full-length Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns.
Hiatt's 20th studio album finds him examining the ravages of time and the damage the natural world inflicts on ordinary people who — in Hiatt's universe — usually want to cling to old ways. Beginning with a doom-laden riff, "Damn This Town" lets a 58-year-old man who is still living at home tell his story. "Another brother just got out of the Florida pen," Hiatt sings. "Wears a bracelet on his ankle so they know where he's been."
This is fine songwriting, of course, and Hiatt's creaky voice delivers the tune well enough. "I Love That Girl" features a nifty four-bar guitar hook and Dirty Jeans' most Costello-like bridge, while "Til I Get My Lovin' Back" lopes along in 6/8 time, as if Hiatt were paying his respects to country soul. "Don't Wanna Lose You Now" continues in the same vein, but it's a corny love song that Hiatt's voice makes even less convincing.
"All the Way Under" is Hiatt at his most perplexing — it's a complex song that effectively communicates the terror of growing old. But Hiatt's voice simply isn't up to the song's demands, and I wish someone who could hit the notes would cover it. As with much of Hiatt's work, it's more than just hitting the notes — it's a matter of both physical and emotional resonance.
Although Hiatt and producer Kevin Shirley keep things basic, Dirty Jeans has a built-in melancholy that arises out of the sheen of keyboards they lay over every track. The six-minute "Hold on for Your Love" describes a bleak post-apocalyptic world that is almost as hard to take as the post-George W. Bush America Hiatt seems adrift in. Hiatt's old truck is on fire, and some bad things have gone down. "Man eating man and there's no time for crying / I'm tired of the blood and I'm sick of the dying."
It's dark stuff that is only occasionally brightened by Hiatt's love for cars and rock 'n' roll — the old America that no longer exists. Hiatt is a classic singer-songwriter, since you have to take his voice as it is to love him. Forgive me: I don't love him, but I respect the courage it must take to sing his songs in the only voice the Lord saw fit to give John Hiatt.