Lilly Hiatt

New West Records, 2021

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Some days it feels like the entire world has a pandemic hangover—not the headache-and-nausea kind, but the sad-and-ornery kind. Fortunately for all of us, writers are still writing, and singers are still singing, and Lilly Hiatt is still pretty damned good at both of those things.

Lately is a record I wrote to share some of where I’ve been with you. Whenever songs happen for me, they are like photographs of time,” says Hiatt, adding that “Last year was tough. That’s an understatement for certain. Tears were shed, lives were lost, and lonely was a way of life. I have always felt lonely, but never gone to the depths of solitude that I had in 2020. The irony of that is, I was not alone at all in that space. Everyone had lost something, and we all were trying to rebuild our lives as we knew them.”

Factor in a global pandemic, social unrest, and a breakup, and the resulting album, Lately, is somewhat quieter and darker than Hiatt’s previous 2020 offering Walking Proof, with even greater focus on the words sculpted into form by this talented craftswoman. And why wouldn’t there be? Her songs are nothing if not honest and true, managing to be both direct and poetic, not the easiest balance to strike. On occasion the way she shapes a line or an idea reminds you that she’s the daughter of ace songsmith John Hiatt, but the voice in which she writes and sings is pure Lilly.

The album opens gently and optimistically with a post-lockdown reunion: “My dad turned on the speakers / It was my brother’s birthday / I hugged my mom and sister / We had so much to say / I cannot remember the last time I felt so good / Just talking with my family in the neighborhood.” Acoustic guitars and slide slumber along underneath as Hiatt’s voice takes center stage for a narrative rich in both wistful acknowledgement of what’s been lost and hope for the future, ending with this gorgeous couplet: “A sky that opens up like love so vast / I take a picture in my mind to make it last.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Hiatt’s band—Mike LoPinto (guitar), Robert Hudson (bass), Kate Haldrup (drums), Micah Hulscher (keys) and Steve Hinson (pedal steel)—stays in the background much of the time on these songs, the subtle sonic landscape they cultivate serving each song beautifully. That much is apparent with the downward turn the mood immediately takes with the steady-on, rather haunted “Been,” full of longing and misaligned stars, capped by this restless pandemic zinger: “Not meant to stay in one place / Stillness just steals my grace.”

A shimmering synth line lights up the title track, cataloguing the agonies and “spun” feelings of a heavy crush whose outcome Hiatt leaves open to interpretation for the half-second it takes for the next track to begin. “Stop” reads like a sequel to the same sensation, a tune about losing control and getting lost in the feeling, with an arrangement that’s again simple and subtle but just right for the song.

The songs unspool from there almost like a movie, each scene crafted from little details and moments that evoke much more than they actually say. “Peach” interweaves a sunset with the denouement of a relationship, the metaphor both obvious and compelling: “Orange sky tonight / Creepin’ through the branches, I’ll still fight / And you won’t do anything.”  Country-tinged stunner “Face” rambles and rumbles along, a compelling portrait of a relationship hitting rough road: “I wish you hadn’t locked it all away / Your face is telling me what your words never say.” Trouble is the sum total of “Better,” a haunting electric number about giving in to a longing that offers nothing but pain in return; then “Gem” travels similar territory in even rawer form, just Hiatt’s urgent, delicate vocals over echoey electric guitar.

“The Last Tear” caps off Lately with a blossoming acoustic-then-electric meditation on lingering in the strangely comforting ache of a recent breakup, building an entire story from a single opening image and question: “I read some letters that I shouldn’t have seen / I didn’t tell anyone anything / Should I just throw ‘em out or put ’em in a drawer? / It’s nothing that I haven’t wondered before.” A tremendous tune that underscores the theme here: love is risky business. To paraphrase the Buddha, attachment leads to pain—but for Hiatt and so many of us, disconnection is not an option. You have to take the leap and pay the price, and hope to learn something along the way.

In the end, the biggest beef I have with this album is its presentation; Lately is only available via stream/download or on cassette (!). I don’t know if it’s a budget thing, pure quirkiness or subtle self-sabotage, but there’s a ton of fans of music like Hiatt’s that still crave physical media that’s larger than a wallet. The only reason you’re reading this review right now is because I got a look at the lyric sheet, which told me this album was not to be missed. Lately is the sound of an artist stumbling into the kind of hard-won self-knowledge that has the potential to raise the game of everyone you share it with. So share it, won’t you please?

Rating: A-

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© 2022 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of New West Records, and is used for informational purposes only.