Johnny Hickman dots his new solo album’s landscape with compelling messages.
“May you recall all the wrong roads you have taken/And the ones that tried to make you understand/That the measure of ambition and of riches/Is no measure of a man,” the longtime Cracker lead guitarist sings on Tilting’s socially conscious folk opener, “Measure of a Man.”
“Most of the songs deal in some way with taking stock of the past, present and future, and the answers are far from clear with regards to all three,” Hickman says. “Questions lead to more questions. The existence of God comes into question here and there, and the narrative perspective varies from belief to doubt.”
The 55-year-old covers weighty ground on Tilting but brightens the lyrics with razor sharp guitar work (“Takin’ Me Back”) and effortless melodies (“Whittled Down”). The album seamlessly shifts from unbreakable power pop (“Not Enough”) and bluesy grooves (“Resurrection Train”) and back to folk (“Destiny Misspent”) without a blink. Buoyant rock ‘n’ roll (“Another Road”) concludes the diverse collection. Clearly, Hickman questions no muses when he writes these days.
“I tend to be more unswerving and less self-doubting when I write,” he says. “I’ve learned to satisfy myself first and say what I need to say.”
His guitar always has. After all, Hickman’s high (“Eurotrash Girl”) and mighty riffs (“Low”) consistently have powered Cracker on albums from their 1993 breakout Kerosene Hat through 2009’s Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey.
Songs from Tilting eventually might enter the band’s high-energy set list.
“Sometimes the other guys decide they want to play a new one of mine and off we go,” Hickman says. “That happened with ‘Friends’ from [Hickman’s stunning 2005 debut] Palmhenge, and it became an official Cracker song, too, like ‘Mr. Wrong’ did.”
Tilting effectively doubles down on Palmhenge with confirmation that he has evolved into a singular songwriter as a solo artist. Indisputable evidence: Compare the straightforward Cracker favorite “Lonesome Johnny Blues” against the adventurous and deeply soulful “Papa Johnny’s Arms.”
“I listen to songs I’ve written in the past and hear myself second-guessing a little on some of them,” he says. “You have to just purge your demons, honestly.”