John Hiatt had as good a run as anyone between 1987-2001, a stretch that yielded eight albums, including some of his best. From Bring the Family through Thank God the Tiki Bar Is Open, Hiatt was in peak form as a songwriter, and a succession of ace backing musicians helped bring his music to life. (Even the critically and commercially unloved Little Head from 1997 is better than its scornful reviews.) His albums since then haven’t been bad, they just haven’t been particularly distinctive, an issue he goes some way toward rectifying on his latest.
The Eclipse Sessions is Hiatt’s first new recording in four years, his longest pause between albums since the ’70s. The break seems to have done him good: these songs feel more focused and purposeful than on some of his other recent releases. Apart from one track, “The Odds of Loving You,” there’s also a merciful absence of the gruff aging-white-guy blues that Hiatt and other singers of his vintage sometimes fall back on. Instead, he nestles into a rich folk-rock vein on these 11 songs, blending acoustic and electric guitars with the thrum of an organ and the ever-steady hand of drummer Kenneth Blevins, who has played with Hiatt on and off since Slow Turning in 1987.
As you might expect from a guy who just turned 66, Hiatt is in a reflective mood as he considers aging, love and his past selves. He recognizes his own shortcomings on opener “Cry to Me,” and hopes that having a tender heart helps balance them. Hiatt is just as gentle on “Hide Your Tears,” resonant piano and a baritone guitar part framing his worn-in voice. He picks out a melancholy acoustic guitar part on “Aces Up Your Sleeve” as he assesses a once-smoldering love that has cooled over the years; and twists the knife on “Nothing in My Heart,” a sullen rebuke to “the one who showed me how / To hide my love away.” It’s not all downhearted takes on dulled and tattered emotions. Hiatt has always had a sly sense of humor, which is in evidence here, too. He gets some mileage out of a double meaning on the wry “Over the Hill,” which includes a sharp guitar solo from producer Kevin McKendree’s teenage son, Yates.
At its core, The Eclipse Sessions shows that Hiatt remains a songwriter worth listening to: He’s a skillful lyricist with a singular voice. Yet anyone who’s been releasing albums for as long as Hiatt has tends to bury themselves under the weight of their earlier work, which fans have been imprinting on their souls for decades. If his latest album doesn’t quite rise to the level of Bring the Family or Slow Turning, well, that’s a high bar, and Hiatt is not the same person as he was in his mid-30s. But the past is past, and The Eclipse Sessions is strong enough to make an impression of its own.
Watch John Hiatt’s Paste Studio session below: