It was something of a surprise when Lilly Hiatt dropped Lately, her fifth album of countrified singer/songwriter Rock & Roll in October 2021. It had been just 17 months since her last record, Walking Proof, which drew praise from everyone from Pasteto Pitchfork. Then again, it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise — WalkingProof surfaced just as COVID-19 emerged in March 2020, eliminating any chance of Hiatt touring behind the record.
“Last year was tough,” Hiatt says in a press release that accompanied the release of Lately. “That’s an understatement for certain. Tears were shed, lives were lost and lonely was a way of life. I have always felt lonely but never gone to the depths of solitude that I had in 2020. The irony of that is I was not alone at all in that space. Everyone had lost something, and we all were trying to rebuild our lives as we knew them. As a means of keeping sane, I started to write songs. Some of them sucked. I kept doing it though, because I had nothing else to fill my cup.”
The 10 songs that populate Lately are often stripped back and stark, relying on straightforward lyrics both personal and universal. “Been” rides on a mid-tempo strut of intertwining guitar lines and Hiatt’s modest but affecting voice as she reminisces about a time before COVID: “I close my eyelids tightly/I think of Amsterdam/Biking through the alley/Black Angels turned to 10/Plants and little house boats/I’d never seen before/Writing down on paper/And lusting after more.”
“Ride,” which opens with moody pedal steel guitar and brushed drumming, is an atmospheric, Blues-inflected ode to driving down the road with your companion of choice: “Fast down the pike/Sunset how we like/End of the day/Not much left to say/I love to ride with ya, honey/Nothing else matters when you’re with me.”
The relatively upbeat titular track is the most curious of all, moving on a rudimentary Casio-toned keyboard riff and a weirdly optimistic lilt infusing Hiatt’s vocal delivery: “One day this will all be a distant memory/But right now it’s living inside of me/Wanna buy a pack of smokes/I wanna drive to the river/This city’s got me beat/And I have nothing to give her.”
Lilly Hiatt plays the Southgate House Revival (111 E. Sixth St., Newport) on Feb. 25. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. Get tickets and more info at southgatehouse.com.