“Hitler was dead/Welcome to Babylon” is the great line Ian Hunter uses to sum up the dawning age of rock ‘n’ roll in “Wash Us Away,” from his latest CD, Rant. The song is one of the ex-Mott the Hoople frontman’s patented ballads-cum-ravers, and had a recent Village Underground crowd doing its best imitation of a howling English pub mob. Born a few months before the Nazis invaded Poland, Hunter has a European’s appreciation of the snares of history: At the same show he spoke of his “da’,” who had been in both world wars “with a depression in between.” A wry and subtle line—did his old man suffer a personal depression, or is he talking about the worldwide collapse that helped trigger the Good War? Early on Rant, Hunter gives the mic to Winston Churchill himself for “Death of a Nation,” a melodic lament in which the current toffs are judged unworthy of the prime minister who rallied a failing empire against the Axis juggernaut.
Back in the day, Hunter enraged many Brit crits when he deserted Mother England for that noted tax haven, New York State. Like his countryman, the novelist Martin Amis (who also caught hell when he left Britain for a big American payday and our superior dentistry), Hunter’s at his outraged best when limning jolly old class warfare. Those same critics who were pissed 26 years ago can chew on “Ripoff,” a rollicking, irresistible tune about the gentrification of an entire country now divided between the luxurious rich and those bottom-dwelling sods forlornly hoping to hit the lottery or soccer pools. In “Morons,” a yowling siren chorus that emphatically gets at Hunter’s rage engulfs the simple, blunt lyrics: “We are the morons/That you declared war on!”
Whether utterly sad (“Dead Man Walkin’ “) or living it up (“Purgatory,” “American Spy”), Hunter’s scabrous vocals are typically an adventure: eschewing pop polish, they stretch and strain, adding tension to already taut songs.
The perfunctory “Still Love Rock and Roll” and schmaltzy “No One”—which channels Eric Carmen with such lyrics as “all by myself, turn out the light”—bracket the disc, but that’s all right. No doubt they’ll appear someday with a disclaimer similar to the one he gave an old song on a recent anthology: “Doesn’t quite make it for me. Something wrong with the groove, as they say.” Such refreshing honesty. At least respect the fuck you, since you gots to pay to read them liner notes.
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