BRING THE FAMILY
A&M Records A&M SP 5158
It isn't surprising that the title of John Hiatt's latest album takes the form of an invitation. Bring the Family is certainly Hiatt's most inviting work ever. But the title cuts a bit deeper than mere coziness. Most of the songs on this immensely moving and powerful record appear to be saying, "It's all right to bring the family--I'm OK now."
Hiatt has always been a very gifted songwriter, the five albums he recorded after 1979--two for MCA, three for Geffen--bristled led with sardonic, lyrical wit. But the true John Hiatt--or let's say the truest John Hiatt--was often obscured behind the masks of snarling pugnacity that grew with each succeeding effort after Slug Line in '79.
Hiatt steps forward as himself on Bring the Family, and it's a revealing show. Listening to this record is like being dropped from a great height into a swimming pool full of ice cubes--its honesty is that startling. The album is a great bellow from the heart, full of songs that are captivatingly frank and invariably touching. No other singer-songwriter is likely to deliver as much of himself to us this year.
A great deal of Bring the Family's impact must be attributed to its wholly sympathetic production and ripsnorting backup band. The LP was cut in four days this past February by John Chelew, a soft-spoken gent from Santa Monica. Taking a back-to-basics, let's-get-this-live approach, Chelew assembled a session band that's hard to top on a man-for-man basis: guitar wizard Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe, and drummer's drummer Jim Keltner. The group's collective credits alone are flabbergasting: these men have played with Captain Beefheart, the Rolling Stones, Leon Russell, Rockpile, Brinsley Schwarz, Bob Dylan, Delaney and Bonnie, the Mothers of Invention . . . and then of course there are the solo careers of Cooder and Lowe. Egad.
As dreamy as this aggregation may be on paper, it wouldn't mean jack shit if the songs they were playing weren't up to snuff. But I think that Hiatt and Chelew knew that the material that became Bring the Family was exceptional in every regard. Seldom has an all-star band labored so mightily on songs of such uniformly high caliber.
Bring the Family is essentially a song cycle about spiritual and emotional rebirth, about coming to terms with one's self, and about nurturing and accepting love. Two of the numbers, "Alone in the Dark" and "Stood Up," make explicit references to Hiatt's long-standing battle with alcoholism (a battle in which he has quite apparently triumphed). Many of the other tunes--"Thing Called Love," "Have a Little Faith In Me," "Thank You Girl," and "Learning How to Love You"--deal with the exhilarating and knotty growth of a romance; they can be seen as Hiatt's rather poorly disguised homage to his second wife, Nancy.
Not all the material is quite so personal, but even the more distanced songs slip neatly into the album's first-person construction. "Memphis in the Meantime" is a jaunty appeal to flee Nashville (the country songwriter's purgatory where Hiatt currently resides) for the more sinfully rocking pleasures of Beale Street; as if to seal the decision, Hiatt wryly tells his girl, "I don't think Ronnie Milsap's gonna ever record this song." "Your Dad Did" is the tune that is probably most representative of the "old" Hiatt here, a tweak at a fatigued prisoner of middle-class life who finds himself working the same circles of bourgeois hell that his father did. The chaos in this poor chump's home life is hilariously observed (my favorite line has his two-year-old offering grace at dinner: "Help the starving children to get well/But let my brother's hamster burn in hell"), and happily Hiatt uses the song as an occasion for good-humored observation and not smug condemnation.
But, as engaging as these tracks are, it is the "personal" songs that give Bring the Family its staggering emotional pull. Of these, the single "Thank You Girl" (which should be a hit, if there is any fucking justice in this world) is the most jubilantly appealing. It's a pure shot of jumping glee, a hearty shout of thanks to the woman who helped pull the pieces back together. It's the LP's rockingest track; Cooder's slide guitar cuts a swath through the number not unlike the one Mr. T sliced through his backyard with a chain saw. Not far behind in terms of bop power is "Thing Called Love," a plea for acceptance that carries the evocative line, "I ain't no porcupine, take off your kid gloves."
The more somber songs are hair-raisingly potent. "Alone in the Dark" finds Hiatt at ground zero, staring at the catastrophe of his life through the bottom of a shot glass ("I'm all alone on my knees, at last"). On the other hand, "Stood Up" finds Hiatt rising above the worst--above loss, above drink ("Now they gave last call for alcohol/And no one has to carry, me home," he sings proudly), above disaster.
The acoustic performances that end each side of Bring the Family are perhaps the record's greatest achievements. "Have a Little Faith in Me" is one of those songs on which the artful combination of a universal sentiment and an unforgettable melody add up to a standard composition. People will be singing this tune forever. Hiatt, accompanying himself on solo piano, sings it with wrenching yet unhistrionic soulfulness. "Learning How to Love You," on which Lowe harmonizes with Hiatt, offers the message that love, no matter how beautiful and sustaining, is never simple. Again. Hiatt offers a soaring vocal turn.
Bring the Family rounded out by two wonderful ballads, "Lipstick Sunset" and "Tip Of My Tongue," which seem slight only in comparison to the other inordinately brilliant material on the record. The album is unmistakably all of a piece, though musically exciting, lyrically inventive and candid, supremely lean and poised from a production standpoint, and stunningly explosive as an emotional document.
To say merely that Bring the Family is John Hiatt's best album is underselling it. Let me put it this way: I'll be listening to this poignant, heartbreaking, thrilling record for as long as I'll be listening to Blood on the Tracks. That's the kind of company it deserves to keep on the shelf.