John Hiatt’s new record, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, once again pairs the veteran Hoosier songwriter with his touring combo (drummer Kenny Blevins, guitarist Doug Lancio, and bassist Patrick O’Hearn) for another sweeping sampler of Americana.
The album’s black-and-white cover captures Hiatt waiting in front of a small-town, one-room church that’s been boarded up. Boarded up for preservation or to keep others out, you might wonder. After listening to Dirty Jeans, you’ll probably suspect that these two reasons are one and the same. Much of the record delves into ideas of “home,” the acts of leaving (or escaping) and returning, and the personal bitterness that can fester with the passing of the years.
Lead single “Damn This Town” menacingly grinds along to a middle-aged man’s unreliable account of the damage his town and family have done to him. Hiatt’s throaty cursing of “Damn this town” on the choruses couples with a bleaker brand of the grunginess found on “Perfectly Good Guitar” to bring the man’s resentment to life. Hiatt alternates between gruff grumbles and naked howls on “Down Around My Place”, as his protagonist depicts the present desolation and deterioration caused by some unnamed injustice or fall from a better way of living. One of the few extended jams in Hiatt’s catalog abruptly erupts halfway through this spare track, echoing the fickleness present amid such pent-up hostility. “Burn down the cabin and put out the stars/Tear up the fields and leave everything scarred,” Hiatt cries out on “Hold on for Your Love”, the record’s standout track about a town being bought up and led to ruin by outsiders. When Hiatt piercingly wails, “Yes, I know I gotta hold on for your love” towards the song’s conclusion, the listener understands that to “hold on” in this town means much more than to simply wait something out.
Not all of Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns carries such a portentous tone. Up-tempo songs like the emphatically cheery-sounding “I Love That Girl” and the rollicking, humorous “Detroit Made” (about a Buick Electra 225) are respites from the gloom, but it’s the small-town “dirt” that really shines here. In many ways, this Hiatt record is much like last year’s The Open Road. If you’re willing to dig around a little bit, you’ll unearth a small handful of moments showing Hiatt at his very best. You just have to get your jeans a little dirty.