The Artful Dodger
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/24/2009
Four years after the tragic loss to cancer of his musical brother-in-arms and best creative foil Mick Ronson, Ian Hunter was still finding his way back. His 1995 outing Dirty Laundry was a band album, making 1997’s The Artful Dodger his first true solo album since Ronson’s passing in 1993.
Sticking with Norwegian producer Bjorn Nessjoe, who had helmed the raucous, punk-tinged Laundry, Hunter invited Laundry-mates Honest John Plain and Darrell Bath to join Nessjoe’s troupe of crack studio musicians in Norway for an album that sounded nothing like the disc it followed. Artful Dodger trades in the rough edges and anarchic vibe of Laundry for a clean, commercial sound reminiscent of Springsteen’s 1992 dueling discs Human Touch and Lucky Town. It’s an approach that isn’t an obvious match for Hunter’s earthy, British-Dylan voice, but as usual with IH, in the end the album’s quality all comes down to the songs.
The principal strength and the principal weakness here are in fact the same thing – Hunter’s songwriting. The man with the shades may in fact be the unacknowledged master of delivering uneven albums, moments of towering greatness surrounded by more pedestrian fare. Here the proceedings start slow and not terribly promisingly with the almost adult contemporary sound of “Too Much,” whose muted backbeat echoes Springsteen’s “Streets Of Philadelphia” without achieving half that song’s pathos, though it does offer one deliciously wry line: “I never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity / Watch me screw up this one, too.”
From there Hunter pushes through three strong cuts -- "Now Is the Time," "Something to Believe In" and "Resurrection Mary" -- then through the churning yet unfulfilling “Walk On Water” and on to -- holy bejeezus why didn’t you warn us? -- two of the best tunes Hunter has penned in the last 30 years. First up, “23A Swan Hill” is a rumbling, ringing rocker full of the often-bitterly perceptive reminiscence that middle age brings to those who paid attention along the way. And “Michael Picasso” is just a pure stunner, Hunter’s eulogy for his fallen friend Ronson. The arrangement -- just an acoustic guitar and Hunter’s vocals -- leaves it all on his words and voice to carry the song, and carry it they do. It’s magnificent and heart-wrenching in the best, most genuine way possible.
It also makes the fall-off in quality of the rest of the album that much more glaring. “Open My Eyes,” the title track, and the closing “Still The Same” are serviceable enough songs, but feel flat and insignificant after “Picasso.” And “Skeletons (In Your Closet)” is a leftover from the Dirty Laundry sessions that should have stayed in the trash where it belonged. This is b-grade humor and strictly b-side material; putting it on the same album as the likes of “Swan” and “Picasso” only serves to underscore what a throwaway it is.
The Artful Dodger was another step back into the light for Hunter in the sense that it proved there was still plenty of gas in the tank, even if the engine was prone to misfiring. An album with several good songs, several average ones, a single stinker and a couple that rank among his very best, it’s a hard album to love but an easy one to find a reason to like. If you only need the essentials, you could probably stick to one of the latter-day Hunter collections that contain “23A Swan Hill” and “Michael Picasso” and be fine -- you’d save yourself a lot of money, too, since this one is out of print and hard to find. For the Hunter completist, though, Artful Dodger is a bit of a hidden gem.