Ian Hunter – When I’m President (Album Review)

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At the age of 72 , Ian Hunter shows no sign of going gentle into that good night. On When I’m President, the Mott The Hoople frontman is as agile as a prize-fighter. Hunter’s last two albums, Shrunken Heads (2007) & Man Overboard (2009) are bona fide late-period masterpieces.  Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen & Neil Young helped define the niche. Refuting that rock n’ roll adage ‘hope I die before I grow old’, Hunter’s creative rebirth places him, with head held high, in such august company.. Where his last two albums were a little more autumnal in their reflections, When I’m President often spits invective bile like Zimmerman at his heroically indignant best. But the Shropshire-born lad delivers blows with the riotous bonhomie of a barroom brawl. Hunter manages to do this with his inimitable knack of finding poetic grace amid the gravel. He likes a rumble but always sings like a seer.

The songs may be ostensibly less politically charged than those of their predecessors, but whether it’s the machinations in the White House (the title track), trash culture (What For) or the erosion of America’s indigenous civilizations (Ta Shunka Witco) he’s still got plenty to rail against. But those gripes won’t grind him down. Comfortable (Flying Scotsman) kicks the album into life with Mae West bravura and the kind of brass-led boogie of Mott classics like All The Way From Memphis.  Hunter melds his Dylanesque gait to Exile-era Stones and still manages to sound like nobody else. Large chunks of the album careen with a similar honky tonk insouciance.

Another British rocker who turned his gaze towards the Atlantic for inspirations (he moved to New York after Mott’s mid-seventies split), When I’m President chugs down the dusty railroad of Americana. Wild Bunch climaxes with a rabble rousing sing-along as rugged as Peckinpah’s outlaw cowboys. The Way You Look Tonight is the kind of working man’s slow dance Bruce Springsteen mastered on Darkness On The Edge Of Town’s lighter moments. The album’s atmospheric cornerstone, Ta Shunka Witco, salutes Crazy Horse. That Hunter can inhabit such potent American landscapes, from blue-collar blues to the resistance of the Sioux Indian leader, & be so wholly convincing, evidences his sensitivity as a writer, ever-present underneath the tough man veneer.

Even when the pace drops the energy rarely lets up. Fatally Flawed’s quiet storm of introspection is intermittently struck by E-Street thunder and overdriven guitars, that tough/tender yin/yang again.  Black Tears similarly alternates between Blood On The Tracks lacerating loveliness and soft-rock power ballad chorus, a big, meaty reminder that this was the leader whose band inspired Def Leppard as well as Morrissey.  The libidinous grind of I Don’t Know What You Want, featuring son Jesse on vocals, is further proof of Hunter’s ability to approach ZZ Top territory without ever sounding naff or cliché.

An original who never shied away from trying on his peers’ shoes, there’s plenty of playful allusions here. The title track lifts the oscillations of The Who’s Won’t get Fooled Again, a wry quote for its ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ swipe at the political sphere. Catchy as hell, the song bears a trace of sorrow in its swagger, bowing out with Mazzy Star style slide guitar and heart-string mandolin.  A long time ago when still a jobbing musician working part-time for artists like Billy Fury, Hunter was also a sometime journalist   His lyrics still carry the pithy precision of that profession. The man rarely talks in riddles.

And like any plain-speaking rock poet, Hunter knows that your message doesn’t mean a thing unless you make it swing.  What For growls at the opiating morass of junkyard culture and political frauds but shakes and rattles with the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis. As he gleefully informs the listener on Saint ‘it ain’t the same without the music’. The only thing he preaches is the gospel of a good time. His musical life started out way back in the late 50’s at Butlins Holiday Camp. Ian Hunter remains a consummate entertainer.

It may sound trite but When I’m President, the 20th album this septuagenarian has made, is a fitting testament to the life-affirming joy to be had from the simple pleasures in rock n’roll, both to forget & address the world’s woes. On closer Life, over pizzicato strings, a becalmed Hunter allows a retrospective glance. With Zen-like simplicity he shrugs off the entanglements of this mortal coil, leaving behind only the warmest of wishes ‘hope you had a good life. Despite his ire at man’s inhumanity to man, he remains as unburdened by it as his music emerges fleet-footed, equally free of excess baggage.