Science tells us that going out fully vaccinated in the current phase of the interminable COVID-19 pandemic is, for all intents and purposes, “safe.” Science also tells us that COVID-19 is a worldwide mass-trauma event. Spending 16 months indoors and cut off from meaningful social interaction laid us all out, especially when that eight-day stretch of “normalcy” back in June crumbled back into the familiar sensations of paranoia and fear.
Lilly Hiatt’s new record, Lately, comes to us just under two years after her last one, Walking Proof, though time dilation shrinks that period down to what feels like two weeks. Didn’t Walking Proof just come out? Hiatt hunkered down in her home, as most did through COVID’s early rampage, and her mental health took a bruising just like everyone else’s. We’re in the sweet spot of post-COVID popular culture, where films, TV shows, books and records produced during the pandemic’s worst stage will, whether intentionally or accidentally, reflect the author’s experiences under lockdown, for better and worse, with the emphasis on “worse.” Some people are solitary as a matter of habit. COVID forced them to double down on their solitude.
This gives Lately, an unfussy, straightforward album, layers of meaning: It’s an attempt at reconciling with imposed isolation and a display of solidarity for Hiatt’s similarly isolated friends, family, neighbors and fellow Nashville residents. Hiatt speaks to that collective loneliness starting on the first three songs, “Simple,” “Been” and “Lately,” each expressing different pieces of what Hiatt’s gone through during the pandemic in totally different ways; they’re related, but unique. In fact, the sequencing of these tracks captures the American zeitgeist in reverse: relief, anger and longing, a reminder that writing good songs is important but putting them in the right order comes a close second.
“I cannot remember the last time I felt so good / Just talking with my family in the neighborhood,” Hiatt sighs on “Simple” before exhaling into the chorus. Kate Haldrup brushes her snare drums, Steve Hinson twangs his pedal steel, Hiatt duets with Mike LoPinto on guitar, Robert Hudson’s bass gives a jovial hum; the harmony they make is as soothing as the thoughts and memories Hiatt pours into her lyrics. There’s a division in the song’s time and place. She could be singing about better days before people had to stay apart, or she could be singing about that much-anticipated reunion with her mom, dad and siblings, tangled arms wrapped up in hugs too long in the waiting.
But Hiatt’s emotions are fractured. She’s only human, and she’s suffered under a very specific kind of duress. “Simple” gives way to “Been,” replacing assuaging tones with a sterner account of that suffering and what Hiatt did to get through. “I close my eyelids tightly / I think of Amsterdam / Biking through the alley / Black Angels turned to 10,” she rumbles over punchier percussion. If “Simple” feels like a warm day spent lounging in a hammock, “Been” feels like a song born to be played in smoky bars full of dancing audience members, too caught up in the strut to catch the rebukes Hiatt weaves into the chorus. “You say this is all just a moment / So why don’t you own it? You may never get this chance again / But you don’t know where I been.”
Last of this trio is the title track, where Hiatt pulls a 180 from “Been”: “One day this will all be a distant memory,” she chimes. In a way, she’s actually just taking her own advice, acknowledging that this, too, shall pass and accepting what she can’t control. But she can’t help wax a little nostalgic, dreaming of the day she can just go out and enjoy living in the city. It’s amazing how much we all took for granted in January 2020, how easy we had it when we could just walk into a store and buy cigarettes without worrying about, you know, death. But Lately doesn’t take our old ease of living for granted. Hiatt moves on: The rest of the record looks toward other material, like busted relationships, à la the reverb-forward “Peaches,” or the brisk closer, “The Last Tear,” which verges on a level of joy mostly missing from the record.
“The Last Tear” embraces rock ’n‘ roll’s liberating power. The song gives into uncertainty with gusto, returning to thoughts of COVID after Hiatt mostly puts those thoughts on the backburner following “Lately”: “Talking about it just makes me feel small / When will the last tear fall?” Nobody knows. But being as nobody knows, it’s perhaps best to rock on. Lately is a much more introspective and muted work compared to the countryfied indie rock sensibility of Walking Proof, the style Hiatt is known for. The change of pace is welcome, though, and reveals much about where she’s been as a person and where she’s going as an artist.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.