“I guess we all have dreams floating on feathers,” remarks John Hiatt near the end of Terms of My Surrender in a song of separation titled Come Back Home. It’s a sentiment both passive and deflating, a shadow from the darker side of a songwriting psyche with a front row seat to the human condition. Color that with the low, scorched tone of his singing and the light, rustic tone of the instrumentation and you have a portrait of the 21t century Hiatt at work.
Well, you have one portrait. Hiatt may sound like he belongs to an elder school of hard knocks on Terms of My Surrender. But, as has always been the case with his recordings – especially the remarkable string of nine albums he has issued over the last 15 years – Hiatt wears the comedic mask as much as the tragic one. Two songs earlier, on Here to Stay, brittle guitars sway in bluesy simpatico preaching romantic salvation and familial faith in the face of desolation (“Even your pride is gonna leave you; my love is here to stay”). And in a wily instance of roots-rock diplomacy called Baby’s Gonna Kick, Hiatt takes a whimsical pass at domestic distrust that is revealed when the title’s full intent unfolds in the chorus (“My baby is gonna kick me out someday”).
Such are the peripheral glances of domesticity that Hiatt serves up throughout Terms Of My Surrender. The wiry, rootsy backdrops Hiatt designs with producer/guitarist Doug Lancio nicely compliment all the emotional fence-straddling, too. But even within that context, the album offers a few surprises.
When the troubled skies clear for the baby talk parlor piece Marlene, Hiatt and Lancio create a light, summery sing-a-long. Then during the title tune to Terms of My Surrender, the sound turns to slow jazz while the mood becomes whimsical enough for Hiatt to summon a truly distinctive metaphor for the lovelorn (“my heart is so heavy, like a stack of Bibles”).
Still, the sound and imagery permeating the record suggest the blues. Hiatt began leaning more prevalently in that direction with 2008’s Same Old Man. But on the new album’s most arresting tune, Face of God, Hiatt gets worldly (perhaps even otherworldly) with a brittle acoustic meditation that strives to find the balance between earthy suffering and spiritual release.
Nothin’ I Love is a more earthbound reverie with a dirty, dirty, dirty guitar riff and a sense of playful confession fit for a priest (“I keep-a slink-slack-slidin’ down a slippery slope”).
Ever since Bring the Family redefined his career over 25 years ago, Hiatt has sounded remarkably at home in the well worn skin he calls home. While the stories on Terms of My Surrender aren’t autobiographical, they are told with enough crusty, curmudgeon-ly zeal to make Hiatt the master of all the bliss and wreckage before him.