The Eclipse Sessions

John Hiatt

New West Records, 2018

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


My very first review for The Daily Vault 24 years ago was of a typically solid-if-not-spectacular album from John Hiatt. Twenty-four years later, what could be more fitting than to choose for review number 1,001 than a recent and similarly pleasing outing from the irascible, powerfully gifted Hiatt. Welcome to The Eclipse Sessions, so named because the first of two recording sessions for the album coincided with a lunar eclipse in August 2017.

There’s a certain character who shows up time after time in Hiatt’s massive catalog of songs, a sort of magnified version of himself, a well-intentioned, sentimental but fundamentally rascally ne’er-do-well. The kind of guy who sleeps on your couch, eats your food, borrows your car, and pulls into your driveway again a week later with a big smile like there couldn’t possibly be a problem, ’cause he’s basically a nice guy, and now he’s got a plan…

Anyway. The point is that Hiatt is both playful and wise, self-deprecating and cocky as hell, an Americana poet whose songs are so evocative and insightful that half the time you don’t even notice he has ten miles of gravel road for a voice. Still, while said voice shows off more creaks and crackles than ever, Hiatt is also a better singer than ever today. Much like Springsteen or Petty, he has long since mastered his own limitations as a vocalist and figured out how to get the most of the instrument he has.

More importantly, his songwriting—always the core of his art and appeal—remains consistently superb. The chorus of gently tuneful opener “Cry To Me” is peak Hiatt: “Come on and cry to me, baby / You can even lie to me, baby / I’m probably gonna let you down, but / I swear I won’t keep you down.” That’s some real talk there, all set to a swinging roadhouse arrangement.

Another characteristic of Hiatt’s is a certain restlessness; his catalog is rich with road songs and he’s rarely employed the same supporting players more than a couple of albums in a row, though certain names continue to crop up. One of those is Kenneth Blevins, the drummer here and on several notable Hiatt albums. Another is ace session bassist Patrick O’Hearn. For my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Eclipse, this stellar rhythm section is matched up with brothers Kevin McKendree (producer / keyboards) and Yates McKendree (engineer / guitar), who each do double duty on the production side while completing a lineup that’s a perfect match for Hiatt’s earthy yet precisely crafted songs, playing loose and easy but always right on the money.

From that promising start you get a nice mix of ballads, mid-tempo story-songs, and the occasional rocker. “All The Way To The River” is a steady-on rumination that builds in urgency verse by verse as the protagonist goes over and over things in her mind, unable to find peace anywhere but the river. “Aces Up Your Sleeve” then offers a gritty but tender acoustic ballad about longing and trickery in a relationship.

Another moment of peak Hiatt arrives as he opens boogie-infused track four by repeating the one-line chorus “I’m A Poor Imitation Of God” four times. Here is the man in a nutshell—witty, melancholy, self-deprecating and self-aware, both sharply observant and thoroughly down to earth. The much darker “Nothing In My Heart” presents a somber ballad about hiding your love away deep down inside.

The light shines again with the Muscle Shoals-inspired “Over The Hill,” where Hiatt first declares that “I don’t know any better / Than to dream” before putting his big-hearted brio on full display: “I’m long in the tooth / What can I say / I take huge bites of life / And I eat the bones.” Kevin McKendree’s gloriously greasy Hammond organ and Yates’ pinpoint Delta licks give this one a strong r&b/gospel undercurrent.

“I can’t shake the feelings inside of me / I can’t fake the man I’m supposed to be” sings Hiatt on the bouncy yet philosophical “Outrunning My Soul.” It’s a tune that tests the limitations of his voice, but he’s game for it, and that attitude carries the day; it’s all part of the show. “Hide Your Tears” is an impassioned acoustic-and-piano ballad that manifests both intensity and a friendly hominess thanks to the lived-in qualities of Hiatt’s voice.

Rascally John returns with the acoustic slide blues “The Odds Of Loving You,” which finds him singing with a big old wink in his voice: “Oh you school me and you cool me / Baby don’t you ever stop.” It’s a tune that would make John Lee Hooker smile. Penultimate track “One Stiff Breeze” is a fascinating concoction, a rather Abbey Road-ish rocker with mystical undertones whose best feature might be the instantly memorable descriptor “flashlight eyes.” Finally, we close things out with the melancholy “Robber’s Highway,” as Hiatt gives a character of a certain age a moment to look back on his life and take stock before the inevitable: “Only one way this thing ends.” Hiatt also reveals exactly what it would take for him to lose hope: “I had words, chords, and strings / Now I don’t have any of these things.”

The good news is, the real Hiatt still has all of those things, and all the skills that make him such a memorable artist: a unique voice, a rangy musical approach, and tremendous songwriting craft. The Eclipse Sessions might not break any new ground, but it shows John Hiatt remains a creative force to be reckoned with, a first-rate songwriter with the creative instincts of a character actor and the ability to take you on a guided tour through heartache, fury, laughter and lust in the space of 43 minutes. The world needs more John Hiatt, and so do I.

Rating: B

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