“Terms of My Surrender”
There’s just one really steadfast relationship on “Terms of My Surrender,” the new album by John Hiatt, and it’s the one between him and the blues. Everything else, it seems, is provisional: desire and devotion, good choices and decent luck. Singing in character, Mr. Hiatt offers all manner of hangdog sweet talk and yearning entreaty, and even a couple of sworn assurances. But it’s a blues sensibility that guides these songs, in feeling if not always in form.
Mr. Hiatt, 61, has had no problem acclimating to the elder-statesman phase of his esteemed troubadour career, in which the blues always cohabited with country, folk and rock ’n’ roll. His wry, knowing voice as a singer-songwriter rang of experience even when he was a younger man. But these autumnal reflections — “Leaves are fallin’, winter’s on my mind,” goes the opening line in “Here to Stay,” a blues dirge — point toward a familiar species of morbid resilience. As if to help place the reference, Mr. Hiatt name-checks John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf in “Baby’s Gonna Kick,” a grudging prowl featuring his own train-whistle harmonica.
Produced by Doug Lancio, the lead guitarist in the Combo, Mr. Hiatt’s fine backing band, “Terms of My Surrender” has a relaxed and rawboned sound, credibly rooted in live performance. (A deluxe version, available through Amazon, includes a DVD of a sure-footed concert film currently in rotation on the Palladia channel.) Mr. Hiatt and the Combo, who’ll also headline theLowdown Hudson Blues Festival on Thursday at Brookfield Place in Battery Park City, in Lower Manhattan, can prioritize deep groove without laying it on too thick, never overcrowding the lyrics in the songs.
Those lyrics can be philosophically reflective, as in “Long Time Comin’,” or brokenhearted, as in “Come Back Home.” On “Nothin’ I Love,” Mr. Hiatt tries on the guise of a man racked with vices, trying to press them into the service of flattery: “Nothin’ I love is good for me but you,” goes his line. “Old People” recalls Randy Newman’s “Short People,” but with lyrics that lean more poignant than puckish, peeling away to the bitter heart of the joke.
Similarly, “Face of God” is back porch blues built around a high-minded rhetorical question: “Tell me how much more suffering/Before you see the eyes of God?” And on the title track, shrouded in the same misty country-western nostalgia that has preoccupied Bob Dylan of late, Mr. Hiatt flickers between his gruff natural register and a faint, shuddery falsetto. When he sings of surrender, he could be alluding to love or death, or maybe both: “Where’s the glory in ashes and dust?/At the end of the story, there’s just us.” NATE CHINEN