The Popdose Guide to John Hiatt

Written by Music, Popdose Guides

For the first decade or so of his career, John Hiatt was a case of mostly unfulfilled potential. Everyone knew he was a good songwriter — particularly other songwriters — but, for one reason or another, his albums never showed much more than the occasional flash of brilliance. This was partly due to the idiocy of major labels — Hiatt was signed to a few in the ’70s and ’80s, and all of them tried turning Hiatt into a different flavor of a different month — and partly due to the lack of focus and self-destructive behavior of an angry alcoholic in a seemingly interminable downward spiral.

In fact, Hiatt’s early efforts are interesting primarily because of what was going on behind the scenes, not the music itself. Rare is even the most diehard Hiatt fan who will tell you that Warming Up to the Ice Age or Riding With the King are great albums. The songs were often there — a fact attested to by the number of artists who have cherrypicked those albums for songs to cover on their own releases — but the performances were occasionally underwhelming. And the production? Whoa. Early Hiatt albums are notorious for being victims of some of the flattest, most dated production of the ’80s.

Taken in context, however, within the body of Hiatt’s work, they’re more consistently enjoyable than conventional wisdom would seem to indicate. These albums still pale when compared to 1987’s Bring the Family and the best of what followed it, but even from the beginning, he had an uncommon knack for stripping a song down to its most essential bits.


Hangin’ Around the Observatory (1974)
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Like a lot of songwriters, Hiatt got a publishing deal before a recording contract; unlike many — at least at the time — he couldn’t read or write music. This didn’t stop him from writing songs, obviously, but it meant that he recorded all his own demos rather than simply transcribing the arrangements for other people to perform. Thus, when Three Dog Night had a hit with Hiatt’s “Sure as I’m Sittin’ Here” (download), he was more prepared than most to present interested labels with examples of his work.

He ended up signing with Epic, and releasing Hangin’ Around the Observatory in 1974. It isn’t a particularly distinguished debut, but it’s got an undeniable — albeit limited and unfocused — charm. The set hints strongly at what Hiatt would go on to do in the late ’80s, actually; not only with “Sure as I’m Sittin’ Here,” but wry, uptempo numbers like “Maybe Baby, Say You Do” and quieter fare like “Little Blue Song for You” (download). Like a lot of first albums, it meanders — closing track “Ocean” (download) is unlike anything else on the record, or anything else Hiatt would ever release — but it holds together surprisingly well. Unfortunately, that didn’t help it sell.


Overcoats (1975)
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A year later, Hiatt returned with Overcoats, which is about as similar to his debut as the short turnaround would lead you to believe. The album isn’t as consistent as its predecessor — it’s here that Hiatt shows what would become a career-long willingness to confuse cleverness with smarts, with fluff like “I Killed an Ant With My Guitar” — but if the valleys are lower, the peaks are higher too. The breezy mid ’70s charm of “Down Home” (download) and the title track (download) eclipse pretty much anything on Observatory, for instance, even if he stumbles on tracks like “Ant” and “I’m Tired of Your Stuff,” on which he seems to be vocally channeling Shel Silverstein.

If Epic knew it had a major talent developing in the roster, though, the label had a funny way of showing it; after Overcoats failed to find much of an audience, Hiatt was out of a deal — and he’d stay that way for four long years.


Slug Line (1979)
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Even with the four-year gap, the difference between Overcoats John Hiatt and Slug Line John Hiatt is pretty startling. The countrified blues of the first two albums are replaced here with taut, New Wave-tinged rock; the obvious points of reference are Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, and both would seem to have been intentional. Lowe, in particular, was a profound influence on Hiatt, and the two would develop a lasting friendship that would have an impact on the latter’s career on more than one occasion — but more on that later.

Of the two “New Costello” albums Hiatt recorded for MCA, Slug Line was the more favorably looked upon, both critically and commercially, but looking back, I tend to think it’s actually the weaker of the two. Though the mean streak Hiatt reveals here would go on to serve him well, on Slug Line it feels slightly forced; if he wasn’t trying to chase a trend, he was almost certainly making a conscious effort to duplicate a sound he admired, and it rings just a little hollow. These aren’t Hiatt’s catchiest songs, either — “The Negroes Were Dancing” (download) is a nifty little “Hand Jive” lift, and and “Long Night” (download) is authentically slinky, but he’d done better before and would do it again.


Two Bit Monsters (1980)
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Panned as an inferior follow-up to Slug Line when it was released, Two Bit Monsters has aged better than its predecessor, partly because it’s a better set of songs overall, and partly because Hiatt seems more comfortable in his skinny tie and sharkskin jacket than he did the year before. This album’s nervous energy and casual sneer are a better fit for its stripped-down approach; more often than not, Denny Bruce (who co-produced with Hiatt) is content to simply sit back and let the four-piece crew — including Howie Epstein on bass — go to it.

The songs are solid, if not among Hiatt’s finest. Emmylou Harris would go on to cover “Pink Bedroom” (download), and “String Pull Job” (download) is a nice early example of his jaundiced take on the war of the sexes, but for the most part, the album is just fine without being exceptional. When it failed to chart, MCA decided it had heard enough, and pulled the plug. Four albums and two labels into his career, Hiatt had yet to crack the album charts; all that was left was to find another home.


All of a Sudden (1982)
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For his first Geffen album, Hiatt tabbed Tony Visconti to produce, and those who thought Visconti’s best-known work with Bowie, T. Rex, and the Moody Blues would make him something of an awkward fit for the project found themselves vindicated when All of a Sudden was released. The production isn’t bad, necessarily, it’s just inappropriate — lots of gloss, lots of messing around with vocal effects — which is a shame, because it’s as least as good as anything Hiatt had already done. In particular, “I Look for Love” (download) is an early Hiatt classic, and coulda-shoulda been a hit, but the whole album shows signs of maturation. If not his best set of songs to this point, it’s arguably his most consistent. “Something Happens” and “My Edge of the Razor” (download) are other highlights.


Riding With the King (1983)
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It’s two, two, two albums in one! Not really, but because of the way it was recorded — side one was produced by Ron Nagel and Scott Mathews of the Durocs, with Mathews acting as a sort of one-man band behind Hiatt’s vocals and guitar; side two was produced by Nick Lowe, with support from Lowe and his Cowboy Outfit — it basically feels that way. There’s a marked difference in the way the record feels from one side to the next; neither is better than the other, unless you have a marked preference for one versus the other, but Lowe’s tracks bear his unmistakeable mid-’80s sound.

If Nagel and Mathews aren’t quite as distinctive, they make up for it by getting the album’s best songs, including “Girl on a String” (download), “Lovers Will,” “She Loves the Jerk,” and “Say It With Flowers” (download). The whole thing is brighter and not as sharp as what he’d go on to do, but it marks the spot where he (or his labels) stopped trying to squeeze him into places where he didn’t belong. Future albums would have their problems (sometimes many problems), but from this point forward, he wasn’t a country blues artist, or an Elvis Costello knockoff; he was simply John Hiatt.

Of course, this had its own set of inherent difficulties, especially at first, but it was a step in the right direction.


Warming Up to the Ice Age (1985)
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Hiatt’s producer for this project, Norbert Putnam, made his bones in country music, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to this thin, sodden mess of a record. It was 1985, so “everyone was doing it” is an acceptable, if limited, defense — but a great band (including a terrific horn section and Willie Green, Jr. and Bobby King on background vocals) was criminally wasted. (Bass player Jesse Boyce, however, deserves a rough, prolonged shaking for his obnoxious playing here.)

Considering that Hiatt was nearing an alcoholic bottom at the time, the songs hold up surprisingly well, if you can ignore the way they sound; “When We Ran” (download) is lovely, and “I’m a Real Man” (download) has some funny (if obvious) lines, also among his best are “She Said the Same Things to Me” and “The Usual” (later covered by Dylan). Elvis Costello even shows up for a duet.

Again, however, the album failed to chart. And so, in 1986, when Hiatt found himself without a record deal, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. The cognoscenti shook their heads and clucked about how wrong it was that such an undeniable talent had been consigned to the periphery, but all things considered, he’d been given his shot.

And then a funny thing happened: Hiatt hit bottom, cleaned up, got sober, and turned the experience into the best music of his career. He showcased the new material during a residency at McCabe’s in Los Angeles, and word spread. The next step was a new deal with a new label, and sessions for what would become the certifiably classic Bring the Family.


Bring the Family (1987)
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John Hiatt - Bring the Family

Bring the Family was a watershed for Hiatt, and since its release in 1987, it’s become a touchstone for countless songwriter dorks with a soft spot for smartly written roots music. Asked to name his dream band, he responded with “Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder, and Jim Keltner” — and then discovered that all three were ready and willing. It was a case of the perfect musicians for the perfect songs at the perfect time. Though Hiatt didn’t have an American label at the time, he still had friends at Demon in the UK (he has said he was told he could “fart in a bathtub” and the label would release it), and with their backing, he got to work. Getting these four cantankerous talents (and egos) into a studio together would prove to be much more problematic in the future, but for the four days it took to record Bring the Family, lightning met bottle. There are no wasted moments: Lowe’s bass is a fat, wondrous thing; Cooder’s guitar barks, bends, and snaps; Keltner’s drumwork is predictably stellar; and Hiatt’s warm, elastic growl brings it all together.

And the songs are superb. (Is there a better opening line for a love song than “You’re a little on the thin side/But that’s all right,” from “Thank You Girl” (download)?) It’s an album about growing up late, about coming to terms with regret, about getting a second chance with love and family. And in exploring these subjects, Hiatt lost none of the caustic humor that had typified his earlier work; instead, he learned to channel it through a more — pardon the pun — sober outlook. Take “Your Dad Did” (download), for instance. There might be, somewhere, a better song about fathers, sons, and domestic bliss, but I haven’t heard it:

You’re a chip off the old block
Why does it come as such a shock
That every road up which you rock
Your dad already did

Yeah you’ve seen the old man’s ghost
Come back as creamed chipped beef on toast
Now if you dont get your slice of roast
You’re gonna flip your lid
Just like your dad did

Well the day was long, now supper’s on
The thrill is gone
But something’s taking place
Yeah the food is cold and your wife feels old
But all hands fold
As the two-year-old says grace
She says, “Help the starving children to get well
“But let my brother’s hamster burn in hell”
You love your wife and kids
Just like your dad did

The album wasn’t a huge hit, but it earned the best reviews of Hiatt’s career, and its songs have gone on to be covered by too many artists to mention here. “Have a Little Faith in Me,” in particular, has probably paid for a few summer homes, as has Bonnie Raitt’s cover of “Thing Called Love.”

There are no wasted parts. In fact, because of the budget and the brief time allotted, Hiatt had to scramble just to get ten songs in; Lowe, who took no money for his participation, shared a hotel room with Hiatt; and John Chelew, who produced — and did a stellar job — was the booker at McCabe’s. All it took was thirteen years, but with Bring the Family and A&M, Hiatt had hit his stride.


Slow Turning (1988)
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John Hiatt - Slow Turning

A little like Bring the Family, but with more moving parts, Slow Turning took the rich, darkly personal material the previous album had been built from and added a slightly more commercial sheen (courtesy of Glyn Johns’ production) and thicker arrangements (courtesy of Hiatt’s on-again, off-again band, The Goners, featuring Sonny Landreth on lead guitar). It isn’t as powerful as the previous album, but it built on the commercial promise suggested by it; the title track (download) took a chugging rhythm and the line “Now I’m yelling at the kids in the back, ’cause they’re bangin’ like Charlie Watts” and turned it into something like an actual hit. Elsewhere, the made-to-be-played-live “Tennessee Plates” features a memorable scraping riff, “Ride Along” makes terrific use of Hiatt’s pitchy growl, and “Trudy and Dave” (download) gives Bonnie and Clyde a signature Hiatt twist.

The album also finds him reaching, and not always comfortably; “Is Anybody There?” is far too busy (and far too ordinary) for Hiatt — it sounds like a demo for another singer — and he’s occasionally clever when he doesn’t have to be. Still, following up Bring the Family couldn’t have been easy — Hiatt scrapped his first attempt — and if Slow Turning isn’t quite his best work, it was probably still the perfect album for its time, serving as a pleasant extended introduction for fans who’d picked up the story the year before.


Stolen Moments (1990)
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John Hiatt - Stolen Moments

The Goners were out, but Glyn Johns remained behind the board, and the result was the slickest effort of Hiatt’s career. Stolen Moments performed well on the charts — it reached #61, Hiatt’s highest peak yet — but it’s aged rather poorly, and isn’t one of his best-loved albums. Johns has taken some lumps for the record’s sound, but it’s hard to believe a cranky old dog like Hiatt would have released something he wasn’t happy with; it’s more likely that he was trying to fit in at AAA radio, and it’s tough to blame him for that — even if it’s also tough not to wish you could scrub some of the varnish off these songs.

It has its moments, though — a lot of them, actually — including the classic opener, “Real Fine Love” (download), the charging “Child of the Wild Blue Yonder” and “The Rest of the Dream,” the lovely “Thirty Years of Tears” and “Through Your Hands,” and the pleasantly off-kilter studio creation “Seven Little Indians” (download). The best thing about the record, though, is that it finds Hiatt happy and seemingly at peace — and still interesting. He’s dismissed the idea of songwriters needing to suffer for their art as a “bunch of crap,” and here, he proves it.


Perfectly Good Guitar (1993)
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John Hiatt - Perfectly Good Guitar

Perhaps reminded by grunge’s young lions that it had been awhile since he turned up his amps, Hiatt traded his family man’s cardigan for a faded flannel shirt here, enlisting producer Matt Wallace, School of Fish guitarist Michael Ward, and Wire Train drummer Brian MacLeod to help him craft the most consistently loud and ragged album of his career. Surprisingly, it comes across nowhere near as desperate as its description might make it sound — Hiatt’s ragged howl is perfect for the part, and the band buzzes and hums with loose energy.

If only the songs were better. There are a lot of really good ones — the snarling opener “Something Wild,” the funky, loping “When You Hold Me Tight,” the anthemic “Angel” (download), “Cross My Fingers,” and “Permanent Hurt,” the bluesy “Old Habits are Hard to Break” (download) — but there’s also a lot of filler, like the insufferably clever “The Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari,” or the dull “Buffalo River Home” and “Straight Outta Time.” And the title track? It isn’t as sharp or funny as people thought at the time. At twelve songs, Perfectly Good Guitar feels curiously long and woefully uneven.

It wound up being the last studio album Hiatt would record for A&M, but not by the label’s choice. After releasing the live set Comes Alive at Budokan in 1994, Hiatt celebrated his 20th anniversary as a recording artist by signing a big-bucks deal with Capitol Records. Gary Gersh, who’d taken over Capitol not long before, was looking to put his stamp on the label in a hurry, and Hiatt was one of his flagship signings. (Like most of those artists, Hiatt would wind up grossly underperforming, and his tenure at the label — like Gersh’s — would be brief. But first things first.)


Walk On (1995)
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John Hiatt - Walk On

Hiatt continued his prolific run — a 14-song album, only two years in the making — with 1995’s Walk On, probably the highest-profile release of his career. Capitol, still excited about wooing Hiatt away from A&M, promoted the bejeezus out of the album, not that it mattered; aside from “Cry Love” (download), there really wasn’t much here that stood a chance of gaining any radio traction, even at AAA.

Plenty of fans love this album, and it’s fine, but it’s near the bottom of my personal list. There are way too many songs, too many of them are way too long, and on the whole, hooks are in curiously short supply. New bandmates Davey Faragher and David Immerglück provide flawless support, and Don Smith’s production is a thing of warm, crystalline beauty, but it’s mostly for naught. There are some decent songs, to be sure — listen to “I Can’t Wait” (download) — but the chaff-to-wheat ratio is way too high.


Little Head (1997)
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A strange one. Capitol clearly had no use for Little Head — they barely promoted it, and a drunken intern seems to have been assigned the artwork — and the reviews were almost uniformly unkind. In the scheme of things, it’s definitely a lukewarm Hiatt record; the production (handled by Hiatt and Faragher) has little of the immediacy and grit listeners had come to expect, and a lot of the songs sound tired. Whether Hiatt was going through a slump, or the album was just an experiment that didn’t pan out, is hard to say.

On the bright side, there really are some good songs here. The title track (download) and “Far as We Go” (download) do a fine job of presenting Hiatt’s dumb and subtle sides, respectively, and throughout the album, sandwiched between painful fare like “Sure Pinocchio” and “Woman Sawed in Half,” there are small respites from the creative malaise. Undoubtedly for completists only, but still, not as bad as the reviews would have you believe.


Crossing Muddy Waters (2000)
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When it became clear to Hiatt that Capitol wasn’t interested in promoting him, or the results of his forthcoming reunion with the Goners, he wrangled his way out of his contract, taking what would become 2001’s The Tiki Bar is Open with him, and — since the album wasn’t done and it had been awhile since he’d released anything — recorded this loose acoustic set to bridge the gap. Released through a partnership between Hiatt, his new label, Vanguard, and eMusic, Crossing Muddy Waters is easily the least-produced album of Hiatt’s career; the percussion, such as it is, consists of old-fashioned stomps (as he put it, “we finally got rid of the drummer”).

As you might expect, the set drags a bit in places. Though Hiatt’s uniquely suited to this sort of thing, and the album finds him in joyously unfettered form, your ears might start getting thirsty for new sounds after awhile. It works flawlessly as a palate-cleanser after the fussy Little Head, but it’s definitely an album you’ll want to pick up after you’ve gotten a fair distance into your Hiatt collection. That being said, closer “Before I Go” (download) is one of his finest songs, and there’s plenty of worthwhile, enjoyable material here, including the down-to-earth ballad “Take It Down” (download).

For a quickly recorded indie release, Crossing Muddy Waters didn’t do bad for itself — it peaked at #110, outperforming Little Head, and earned Hiatt some positive press leading up to his return to plugged-in recording.


The Tiki Bar Is Open (2001)
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For the first time since Slow Turning, Hiatt reunited in the studio with the Goners, and if these songs overall aren’t quite as compelling as those on the outfit’s previous effort, they’re still solid, and the album’s worth seeking out for Landreth’s presence, if for no other reason. Consider it a victory lap of sorts for Hiatt — he doesn’t work up a sweat here, but he also seems much less self-conscious than he did on his later A&M and Capitol releases.

Still, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed in these songs, at least if you were at all anticipating this reunion; though he’d definitely moved beyond the point where he needed to explore new artistic territory, Hiatt still seems to be treading water here. The charms of songs like the title track (download) and the trippy, nearly nine-minute closer, “Farther Stars” (download) are familiar ones, and they don’t add much to Hiatt’s catalog, either with or without the Goners.

Though the Goners would stick around for another album, Hiatt’s run at Vanguard ended after Tiki Bar; though the label seemed a perfect fit for his music, he found an even better one in Austin’s New West Records.


Beneath This Gruff Exterior (2003)
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John Hiatt & The Goners - Beneath This Gruff Exterior

For their third outing with Hiatt, the Goners got front-cover credit — and, arguably, the strongest material he’d ever given them to play. Beneath This Gruff Exterior isn’t as fresh as Slow Turning was in ’88, but the songs are sharper, not to mention darker and more unyielding; he’s always been a somewhat cranky performer, but by 2003, Hiatt had unquestionably earned the right and accumulated the experience to back it up. The result is a gnarled, feisty set, produced with minimal intrusion by Don Smith with Hiatt and the band — a definite late-period highlight.

As we’ve seen, on previous albums, Hiatt too often seemed to be striking a stylistic or thematic pose, frequently to the songs’ detriment. If Bring the Family found him coming into his own as a songwriter, however, the post-Capitol years have seen him coming into his own as a performer, and Gruff Exterior is a fine example; though Landreth and the Goners aren’t exactly given less room to stretch here, they do sound less like a separate band and more like an organic part of the material. There’s filler, naturally — like most of Hiatt’s longer albums, it’d be better at ten songs — but that’s a fairly petty complaint; it would be hard to name another artist with this kind of mileage who’s still going so strong. “Almost Fed Up With the Blues” (download) and “The Most Unoriginal Sin” (download) are vintage Hiatt.


Master of Disaster (2005)
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John Hiatt - Master of Disaster

When you’ve made as many records as Hiatt has (this is his seventeenth studio album), you’ve likely broken all the new ground you’re going to plow, and made all the grand statements you ever needed to make. Your music, if it was ever any good to begin with, becomes about refinement; about looking up and down the road, separating the ruts from the grooves, and settling comfortably into the latter.

And so it is with John Hiatt. Though he’s indulged in a certain amount of experimentation, in terms of basic sound, anybody who buys his albums knows what they’ll get. The only question is whether he’s feeling it; an extremely prolific songwriter, Hiatt releases an album roughly every 24 months, and he sometimes sounds as if he could use a little rest. Happily, the answer to that question here is a resounding “Hell yes.”

The album has two things going for it right off the bat: Hiatt enlisted the legendary Jim Dickinson to produce, and members of the North Mississippi Allstars to back him. Hiatt’s albums never stray too far from Memphis, but these two ingredients keep Disaster good and greasy, and wholly rooted in Cumberland mud. It smells like barbecue sauce.

Let’s talk about sound. The first thing you notice when listening to the album is how damn thick it is at the bottom — if Master of Disaster was a woman, she’d be Shakira, or Jennifer Lopez, except neither of them are from Memphis. Maybe Ma Rainey instead. Whatever. The point is that this is far and away the best-sounding record I heard all year; you get a fat and healthy low end, but it leaves plenty of room for the stuff on top. Dickinson recorded the album with a Direct Stream Digital console, and he and Hiatt couldn’t shut up about how great it sounded; that kind of crowing usually deserves to be dismissed out of hand, but in this case, it’s the truth. Every instrument on this recording glows with warm clarity.

It would have been a shame if all this had been wasted on subpar songs; Hiatt’s been known to reel off some clunkers, and is sometimes too clever for his own good. He’s at his best when refracting his beloved Memphis blues through a lyrical lens that is alternately warped and weary, but always brilliant. He’s at his best on Master of Disaster. In closing, I’ll just shut up and let him speak for himself:

Just a creature in the dark
Longing for one blessed spark
To burn the sky and heat the night
With love reborn by morning light
But nature doesn’t heed the call
Nature just commands, that’s all
— “Howlin’ Down the Cumberland”

—

My daddy was a salesman
My brother was too
I would sell anything
Just to try to stay with you
— “Thunderbird”

—

And it’s three, four
I’m stiff as Al Gore
Come on over baby
What have we got to lose
Just a nasty case of
These ol’ wintertime blues

Well, it’s the same old drill
For Punxsutawney Phil
If he sees his own shadow
I’m shootin’ to kill
— “Wintertime Blues” (download)

—

When men become more ladylike
I’ll see you in the candlelight
When women come to be like men
We’ll be ashamed to fight again
No jealous God’s the only one
Father, mother, ghost and Son
Love’s unorthodox
Changes all of nature’s clocks
To time remaining
Just twenty-four hours
For lovers in training
Bitter, salty, sweet and sour
— “Love’s Not Where We Thought We Left It”

—

Well he packed up his suitcase
‘Cause the deal gone down
She was slipping on her stockings
Lord it made the sweetest sound
— “Cold River”

—

So I found some open country
I forgot the past
I don’t care if you want me
‘Cause nothing matters anymore baby
‘Til I find you at last
— “Find You At Last”

—

Used to take seven pills
Just to get up in the morning
From seven different doctors
With seven different warnings
I’d call ’em up to say I’m coming apart
They’d say, “Call us back when
“The fireworks start”
— “Back on the Corner” (download)