Walk On

A review by Russell Hall
Goldmine Magazine, 10/13/95

John Hiatt's new album is almost schizophrenic in its presentation of all sides of his songwriting talent. The renegade spirit of the first half of Walk On is as focused, powerful, and dark as anything he's ever released. Conversely, the second half serves up a hodgepodge of stylistic quirks and scattered observations that makes it difficult, at times, to get a handle on where he's coming from.

The common thread, actually more of a taut, sturdy rope, that runs through Walk On's first several songs might best be describes as frustrated desire. The search for love in a world hostile to the emotion crops up again and again as a unifying theme. These songs are people with characters who are alienated, impoverished and often struggling against despair.

She hit upon the drug of love
Though there was no hole in her arm
There was a hole someplace else
About as big as Daddy's halfacre farm.

That's how Hiatt describes the materially-rich, emotionally-impoverished girl in ``Good As She Could Be.'' Set adrift as much by fate as by bad choices, by the song's end she is the prodigal daughter, returning home a ravaged specter of hair and bone. As with many of Walk On's shaky protagonists, we never learn what ultimately becomes of her. Happy resolutions and easy denouements are few and far between.

In its forlorn evocation of the malaise that drives many relationships to ruin, these songs bring to mind the work of maverick writers such as Sam Shepard. Hiatt's voice, which in times past has strained towards authenticity, here sounds raw and unmannered. Similarly, the instrumentation is basic and song-serving -- mandolin, harmonica and pedal steel abound -- and the rough honed, unfettered production gives the album a basement-tape immediacy that departs radically from the glossiness that has marred Hiatt's most recent albums. Straight ahead rockers such as ``Cry Love'' and ``Ethylene'' are cranked out at an urgent pace. The soulful interludes, ``Native Son'' and ``I Can't Wait'', conjure up sugar-plum thoughts of Al Green at his best.

Where the first half of Walk On fits together like the jagged pieces of a broken glass, the second half stirs up a concoction that refuse to bind. ``Shredding The Document'' rails angrily against political deceit, media voyeurism, and tabloid television. The near lullaby, ``The River Knows You Name'', offers a change of pace, and provides a respite from all the storminess that went before. Strangest of all is ``Wrote It Down And Burned It'', a delicious, David Lynch-like detour into paranoid obsession. And finally, the album's closer, ``Miles High'', is the type of molasses-drip, pseudo '50's style lounge ballad that Lou Reed used to surprise us with on occasion.

To asssist with Walk On, Hiatt has assembled some of the most empathetic backing musicians he has ever worked with. Guitarist David Immergluck, in particular, brings a rootsy, authentic touch to the proceedings. David Faragher and Michael Urbano provide a solid, unobtrusive rhythm section, and several guest musicians, including Bonnie Raitt, make brief appearances.

In the end, however, the album is Hiatt's all the way. Walk On stakes out an empathetic claim to territories the songwriter has tentatively explored for years. No longer a poor man's Costello, or a thinking man's John Mellencamp, Hiatt is simply himself. And while he may not always seem comfortable in his own skin, the fit is hard to beat.

Russel Hall
Goldmine Magazine

Reprinted from Goldmine magazine with permission. For more information on Goldmine, call 1-800-258-0929.

Thanks to John D. Hayman <jhayman@k12.oit.umass.edu> for forwarding this item.

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