So what do you know? By all accounts, singer-songwriter John Hiatt is content. Finally. Having struggled with myriad personal problems and indifferent record labels, he's happily married now, with a couple of kids, a comfy office in Nashville, an ever-growing portfolio of sought-after tunes and a prosperous recording career. Even Bob Dylan has been known to cover his songs on occasion, and had it not been for Hiatt's "A Thing Called Love," Bonnie Raitt's double-platinum album "Nick of Time" wouldn't have been nearly as successful.
Of course, peace of mind isn't necessarily a boon to a songwriter -- fellow tunesmiths Bruce Hornsby, Steve Earle and David Baerwald are better off exploring private fears and social injustices on their new albums -- but after all these years of doing much the same, Hiatt deserves his "Stolen Moments" (A&M).
"I'd seen an angel or two before/ But I never asked one to be my wife," Hiatt sings on "Real Fine Love," the album's opening track and one of several tunes charged with a buoyant optimism and spirit. Hiatt's sense of humor -- a constant in good times and bad -- later surfaces on the title track with the line "These days the only bar I ever see has got lettuce and tomatoes," and is neatly balanced by songs of redemption ("Through Your Hands"), determination ("Back of My Mind") and several keenly observed character studies, including "Rock Back Billy," another vibrant snapshot of Americana by Hiatt, and the poignant "Child of the Wild Blue Yonder." If more edgy rock and poetically descriptive songs are to be found on Hiatt's last two albums, there's an almost palpable joy present here that none of his other recordings can match.
So much so, in fact, that when the subject turns to fears or remorse, as on "Back of My Mind" or "Thirty Years of Tears," the songs are generally framed in the past, as if purposely removed from the positive thoughts that imbue the rest of the album. And while some of Hiatt's session-mates are new to his recordings, producer Glynn Johns has again managed to keep the arrangements sounding like the lean and punchy efforts of a seasoned working band.
As usual, there's no middle ground when it comes to Hiatt's singing -- you'll find his eccentric brand of blue-eyed soul either affecting or affected. Those who've grown accustomed to his voice, though, are likely to find it unusually expressive this time out, and never more so than on the album's bighearted finale, "One Kiss."
Playfully invoking a pop culture staple -- "The Honeymooners" -- it's classic Hiatt: "Now Ralph Cramden never sent Alice to the moon/ But you know he wanted to/ But having a good friend like Norton to ease the pressure/ Can really work wonders on a fella's point of view." In the end, though, it's not the relationship between Ralph and Norton that really fascinates Hiatt. The chorus repeatedly alludes to the huge, all-forgiving embrace between Ralph and Alice that so often brought "The Honeymooners" to a happy, sentimental close: "One kiss and we're on our own/ One kiss and it can mean so much/ One kiss and we're almost home/ One kiss that's the final touch."
Bruce Hornsby and the Range: 'A Night on the Town'
Hornsby's "A Night on the Town" (RCA), his third album, offers some surprises as well, and mostly for the good. For one thing, he's no longer emphasizing the pop-jazz piano and rigid backbeat that became his trademark (and a widely copied cliche). For another, by recruiting Jerry Garcia, Wayne Shorter, Bela Fleck and other guests, he and producer Don Gehman (REM, John Mellencamp) have imaginatively augmented his band's new-found rock drive without sacrificing his considerable gifts as a storyteller.
As in the past, references to northeastern Virginia, where Hornsby lives, and autobiographical elements help shape the songs, including the strong title track and the Garcia-driven "Across the River." But among the album's more familiar aspects, it's the topical subjects that find Hornsby in peak form. As eco-anthems go -- and they seem to go for about a dime a dozen these days -- "Barren Ground" is far more thoughtfully crafted than most, and even better is "Fire on the Cross," a song that deftly uses the contrasting colors of Shorter's saxophone and Fleck's banjo to underscore a tale of racial hatred.
Sometimes, however, Hornsby's reach far exceeds his grasp. His attempts at sweeping soul music ("These Arms of Mine") and gospel-funk ("Carry the Water") come across sounding like the efforts of a student rather than a master.
Steve Earle and the Dukes: 'The Hard Way'
Earle also runs the risk of alienating some of his fans by adopting a brasher sound than usual on "The Hard Way" (MCA). Not since "Guitar Town" was released in 1986 has Earle had a better set of songs to work with or sounded more passionate about singing them, especially when the issue at hand is the death penalty ("Billy Austin") or poverty ("West Nashville Boogie"). Touring with Dylan last year, Earle seems to have acquired some of his sneering vocal inflections, particularly on the emotionally taut "Have Mercy," but for the most part Earle's singing is brutally direct and buttressed by a band that knows how to combine country and rock without compromising either style. At 35, Earle already has been married five times, so it only seems fitting that he also gets a chance to explore matters of the heart on "Promise Her Anything" and "Hopeless Romantics."
David Baerwald: 'Bedtime Stories'
Singer, guitarist and lyricist Baerwald, best known for his work with David & David -- the duo's 1986 album "Boomtown" was a critical and commercial hit -- has just resurfaced with a solo album called "Bedtime Stories" (A&M). Far from being a collection of fairy tales, the album would be as gloomy as Hiatt's is sunny were it not for a string of infectious rock arrangements and rousing vocals.
As concise and carefully crafted as they are, Baerwald's lyrics often sound as if they were composed by a man who had abandoned all hope. Despair, to one degree or another, informs nearly everything he sings. The best songs, however, have less to do with decaying society -- a recurring theme on "Sirens in the City," "Stranger" and other pieces -- than with fragile or doomed relationships. "Hello Mary" is typical: "So what are you drinking/ nah, I gave it up/ it was nothing like that/ just enough became enough/ so tell me about your life/ tell me about your man/ nah I'm only curious/ was thinking you'd understand/ o.k. we won't talk about your man."
Fortunately, producer Larry Klein, who has frequently worked with Joni Mitchell, is careful not to let Baerwald appear terminally morose. The arrangements are often bright and inviting, and it's only when Baerwald, a fine singer and guitarist, begins to preach that he gets into trouble.