When New West releases John Hiatt’s new album Terms Of My Surrender on July 14, brace yourselves; whatever tectonic plate you’re riding is going to shift. The man whose songs have been performed by so many of the great and good of roots music that I don’t have space to list them has his twenty-second studio album in the can and it’s a belter from the first second to the last. You won’t find anything new here and you won’t care.
The acoustic foundations of slow-burning opener Long Time Comin’ introduce recurring themes of loss and meditations on life with a nod to the inevitable; ‘..friend of mine said a long time comin’ / I’m just a long time gone.’
Face Of God is 12-Bar gravel. When Hiatt sings the word suffering it’s difficult not to reach for the phone to call the doctor on his behalf. Hiatt’s voice is a bone-dry growl cut from the alluvium of pre-history, trapped for thousands of years in layers of dirty, bloodstained blues. Hearing it for the first time is the musical equivalent of unearthing a rare archaeological find; on Terms Of My Surrender it’s a distillation of forty years of touring, collaborations and just about every accolade a musician can gather, and it winds through these eleven stunning tracks like lava rolling into Pompeii.
Wind Don’t Have To Hurry benefits from great female backing vocals that sweeten the deal a little across a banjo driven melody given additional weight when the drums enter the fray. Nobody Knew His Name riffs on war as waste. Both are great, but the strut of Baby’s Gonna Kick steals their thunder with its off-beat intro to the chorus and the not very hidden sexuality of the lyric, accentuated with a serious lead break on harmonica, an instrument that features brilliantly throughout. Nothin’ I Love is preceded by a long, drawn out sigh and erupts into a storm of Hammond and guitar.
It would be easy to associate the title track with another look at a 61 year old’s take on mortality, but Hiatt is keen to point out on his website that it’s about love. Indeed, the essence of this album’s lyrics are the uncertainty woven into their meaning; if these are just stories I’ll eat my bottle slide. There’s an autobiographical element to most of them, the line between fact and fiction thin. The ambiguity would keep you coming back for more if it wasn’t for the fact that the music is good enough anyway.
Subtle backing from a gospel-influenced vocal enhances Here To Stay. If you think it’s all about the pain of da blooze, there’s humour here too. How about this from Terms Of My Surrender; ‘Well sometimes love can be so wrong / Like a fat man in a thong’, or this slice of observational comedy from the disparaging Old People; ‘Old people are pushy / They don’t have much time / They’ll shove you at the coffee shop / Cut ahead in a buffet line’. Come Back Home wraps up proceedings with an acoustic plea that’s as close as the album gets to a mainstream slice of Americana.
There’s a spirit in this recording that’s free of pressure and free of expectations. The melodies are of the earth and rock, the words universal and personal at the same time, the mark of a great songwriter. Guitars rip, the harmonica wails. Terms Of My Surrender conjures the authenticity of Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf and you can almost feel their ghosts looking on from the mixing deck, nodding approvingly. It’s nothing less than Hiatt deserves.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Released 14th July