When sitting down to listen to the songs of a veteran songwriter, it's not the music itself one should notice first. Pay no mind to instrumentation, tempo, catchiness or anything else. Find the wisdom of the words.
One doesn't have to look far to find the wisdom in Man Overboard, released by Ian Hunter Tuesday on New West Records. He opens with some comical advice on "The Great Escape," when he says, "You gotta get away, you gotta get away./ Especially when the other guy's bigger than you."
But the veteran of Mott the Hoople and more than three decades as a solo artist quickly turns more serious, with standout tracks like "Arms and Legs," "Man Overboard" and "Flowers." These songs convey emotions no 25-year-old could convey. But from the mouth of the 70-year-old Hunter, they are gems to be listened to.
Hunter's lyrics are an emotional ride. He can turn his pen on the world at large or on himself and come up with the same deep emotion and biting criticism.
"Arms and Legs" is a conventional love song, sung by a man who makes not pretense: he knows he needs love. On "Flowers," Hunter looks at a world that continues to make the same mistakes and fails to care for the its greatest problems.
By contrast, the title track is told by a man who struggles to care for himself. Hunter puts himself in the shoes of a homeless man struggling with alcoholism.
In the end, though, he reaches the same conclusion as on "Flowers." Society seems to see right through the problems of those who need the most help: "They got all kinds of pills for all kinds of ills,/ But they ain't got a cure yet for me."
The song is the emotional high point of the album, but certainly not its only strong track. Lead single "Babylon Blues" is a catchy little number that should garner some radio play, if the stations are really listening. "River of Tears" weaves an enchanting tale of a Native American legend. (With an unexpectedly happy ending, based on the title.)
Beyond Hunter's lyrical prowess, though, is the voice that delivers it. As expected, it has a lot more rasp than it once may have, but this only adds to the songs. While he was smart enough to surround himself with a top-notch collection of musicians, his voice remains the most powerful instrument on the album.
My spin: B-
Man Overboard has its share of forgettable moments, but this is more than made up for with its high points. The heart-wrenching title track alone makes this a good album. The ability of a songwriter tell these stories is the reason we continue to listen. We want to be deeply moved.
Hunter displays his ability to still rock on several tracks, but, even more, he shows the vulnerability of a folkie throughout the album. Everyone, young and old, could use a touch of the wisdom of this aged bard.
Released: July 21 on New West Records
The players: Ian Hunter-vocals; Steve Holley-drums, percussion; Paul Page-bass; Jack Petruzelli-electric guitar; James Mastro-electric guitar; Andy Burton-piano, organ; Andy York-guitar, backing vocals
Producers: Andy York and Ian Hunter
Learn more: www.ianhunter.com, www.myspace.com/ianhunterband or www.newwestrecords.com/ian-hunter