Ian Hunter: “Man Overboard”
“Well don’t try pulling me down to your level/ There ain’t nothin’ worse than a phony-ass rebel!” And there you have it: A few weeks after his 70th birthday and a few weeks before reuniting with his old band Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunter remains one of the crankiest, meanest hombres in rock and roll. He’s seen and been through a lot in his perennially underrated career, and he’s got the deep lines in his voice to prove it. Now a septuagenarian who can rock circles around the youngsters and deliver tongue-lashings worthy of a young Elvis Costello, Hunter sings in a voice that has aged into a gravelly rasp, all gristle and venom, and he shows no signs of going gently into complacency or even serenity, as his furious album Man Overboard makes abundantly clear.
Nothin’ funny about this rebel: Actually, this is his second knockout record in as many years, following 2007’s thumping, thundering Shrunken Heads, and he hasn’t run out of piss and vinegar just yet. The tempo has slowed down a bit here, but this is still bristling, folk- and country-tinged rock that sounds vibrant and lived in, a worthy (if mellower) successor to the tempestuous Shrunken Heads. If anything, Hunter sounds even more discontented– the title track is a devastating and bleakly witty song of desperation that he performs with acoustic guitar and harmonica, as if to tell his early critics, who accused him of aping Dylan, that he’s past the point of caring what everyone else thinks. He gives easy sentiment the heave-ho just a few songs later: “Sometimes flowers ain’t enough.”
But if you think Hunter’s just souring with age, well, you don’t know Ian Hunter: He’s always been a cantankerous misanthrope, penning some of the weariest, most cynical road songs of all time in the early days of Mott. But the thing about Hunter is, no matter how angry he gets, he remains a bit of a romantic at heart, and his albums– the good ones, anyway– are as complex and multi-dimensional as he is. And so it is on Man Overboard, a song that finds Hunter sounding older and wearier than ever before (“Man Overboard”) but also younger and more idealistic; the wonderful “Arms and Legs” is a love song written with the patience and compassion that comes from a lifetime of dedication and loyalty, but also a bewitched, gobsmacked affection that betrays a rush of youthfulness.
The opening song is called “The Great Escape,” and the way it sets the tone for the album is fascinating: It’s a funny tale that recounts an incident from the singer’s youth, but its treatment of the past is neither regretful nor overly romantic. Hunter simply seems to tell it like it is, less focused on indulgent introspection than he is on leading a sympathetic backing band through a loopy folk-rock arrangement and keeping the devilish half-smile on his face. He shows his 70-year-old colors mostly in the generally more subdued tempos, though that’s not such a bad thing given that he’s written some of his most winsome ballads, particularly the closing epic, “River of Tears.”
Much of the album’s appeal lies in the juxtoposition of songs like the title cut and “Babylon Blues,” wherein Hunter dissects modern malaise with caustic wit, and the love songs, including not only the surging “Arms and Legs” but also the gentle ballad “Way with Words,” a big-hearted paen to his wife. It’s this range of material that allows one to say that Man Overboard, like Shrunken Heads, is funny and touching, angry and sweet, always vintage Ian Hunter. But what does one make, exactly, of the odd music-hall ballad “Girl from the Office,” a vicious song that seemingly flirts with misanthropism? It’s probably a joke, but it’s a little sour either way.
A couple of other tracks– “These Feelings” and “Win it All”– are fairly lackluster, filler material that keep the album from reaching the same prick-kicking highs of Shrunken Heads, but the standouts, of which there are several, make Man Overboard essential Hunter. He’s growing older and yeah, he’s even slowing down a bit, but he’s still got it where it counts: This record is all heart and wit, a bubbling concoction of anger and sweetness that is, at times, downright explosive, and almost never anything less than classic Ian Hunter.