Following the first run of Mott The Hoople reunion shows in 2009, Ian Hunter took time out to write new material. The Hoople gigs seemed to energise the legendary singer songwriter, as 2012’s ‘When I’m President’ (recorded with The Rant Band) contained some of his best material for some time. From the catchy pop-rock of the title track – complete with trademark tongue in cheek lyric – to the thoughtful ‘Black Tears’, the straight up rock of ‘Fatally Flawed’ and the brilliant 70s throwback and Hoople inspired ‘Comfortable (Flying Scotsman)’, the album was – and still is – a superb record. An album worthy of filing next to his 1975 solo debut and the much-loved ‘You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic’.
Any follow up had so much to live up to. 2016’s ‘Fingers Crossed’ tries very hard to capture some of that magic set by ‘President’, and in lots of ways, it’s a great record, with Hunter and his band so so obviously having enjoyed the recording experience. However, attempting to compare ‘Fingers Crossed’ with ‘When I’m President’ is a fool’s errand; it has a more varied approach which makes it a different beast. It’s certainly an album more befitting to a more open minded fan.
‘That’s When The Trouble Starts’ kicks off the album with a slab of no nonsense bluesy rock, with a grubby guitar sound constantly high in the mix. It’s meat and potatoes style comes easy to The Rant Band, with the stodgier parts tempered by bar-room piano and second guitar adding a Faces-esque slide. It’s not flashy, but Hunter’s gravel-edged voice is well placed as he opines that “you won’t know what hit ya!”, forewarning of a storm brewing…and a more than timely reminder that without Hunter, we might not have The Quireboys or their ilk in quite the same way, and that Great White’s career might have faltered somewhere around that tricky second hurdle. The reflective ‘White House’ explores the life of a man who’s worked hard to get where he is and he’s now got it all and living in comfort without greed. The mix of heavy snare drum, organ stabs and chugging guitar work is very reminiscent of Hunter solo works past and while a touch more sedate, could nestle among the tracks from his 1975 solo album. Vocally, our hero is husky yet emotive, the gentle chord progressions from his band always sympathetic to his style. A few spins shows this track to be one of the album’s best cuts, the unfolding tale reaching into the hearts of many a middle aged listener.
At the outset of ‘Bow Street Runner’, a semi acoustic tale of a London past, Hunter’s voice is unmistakable, crying in the way he had in those bolder Mott days. Musically, it’s perfect; subtler than most of ‘President’, but none the worse for that. A multi-layered guitar driven tune, there’s a retro twang atop a bouncing and strumming pace, underscored by some great basslines. The featured solo is greater still, rising out of the singer-songwriter stylings to push us backwards apace into a world of seventies rock. Then there’s a great chorus, replete with harmonious gang vocals reinforcing a feeling of “all lads together” that – like it’s predecessor – is very much at the heart of this collection of songs. Armed with acoustic guitar, ‘Ghosts’ brings more storytelling from the outset, before finding its feet as a fluid rock tune with some great guitar tones and solid drumming. It doesn’t think outside the box in its Chris Rea meets softer Bad Company mood and makes best use of a couple of simple hooks. In some ways, it’s workmanlike stuff for Hunter – and very much a nod towards the material from the previous album – but still very enjoyable. The title cut, meanwhile, opts for something more thoughtful, with a steady drum beat and rolling piano taking up the mantle for a slow number. Here, it’s the lyrics that are of the most importance and Hunter’s aged voice brings out the best in the themes of passing time, hope, faith in the balance and “the land of the lost”. It’s a tune that builds slowly, eventually giving way to a nicely played bluesy guitar solo. First listens might not suggest this has the chops to go the distance with the likes of ‘White House’, but its ragged beauty gives it a real spirit. Before you realise, it becomes one of the album’s essential cuts.
In a total change of mood, ‘You Can’t Live Forever’ lends a reggae slant to the album and it’s not always the best backdrop for Hunter’s voice, but the spacious approach to the arrangement, again, shows off a fine band. Beyond the solid bassline, there’s some very pleasing muted guitar chords and occasional organ lurking in the back. Reaching the chorus it all starts to make more sense; moving from the pointed bass and measured beats, the guitars rise up and everyone comes together in soft rock solidarity. Hunter’s voice remains an acquired taste – particularly on the bigger notes – but, much like the title cut, this number sounds better with each spin.
Those looking for more of the more obvious Mott-isms brought by material like ‘Comfortable (Flying Scotsman)’ previously, of course, this album is more than happy to oblige, reworking influences from both sides of Hunter’s formative years. ‘Morpheus’ – a change in mood for this album – is dark and introspective, like a natural successor to ‘When My Mind’s Gone’ (from Mott’s 1970 offering ‘Mad Shadows’). With deep piano lines and a very sparse arrangement, Hunter’s voice is almost laid bare throughout this number, as he recounts the process of drifting away from a waking world into an existence of sleep. Eventually, everything ascends for a great guitar solo and the once unsettling quickly becomes majestic and unashamedly 70s, with the vocal stepping up to suit. This is great – no question. On the flipside, ‘Long Time’ provides throwaway fun with a rinky dinky pub rock arrangement, all bouncing piano and mandolins. The tale in hand involves prostitutes, a fifties caff, a lunatic and the boom and bust of success and failure. “Take a chance on destiny, you never know what you’ll find”, says Hunter in classic style. Yeah, it’s familiar, but therein lies the charm.
…And then there’ ‘Dandy’. This track is special. A huge, glammy throwback to ‘All The Young Dudes’, the whole of the band gets a great workout with music that is at once triumphant, majestic and yet very bitter sweet. The dandy in question is the incomparable David Bowie – a friend to Hunter and an idol to millions. Bowie, of course, rescued the arty Mott The Hoople’s fortunes when he wrote ‘All The Young Dudes’ and gave it to them when the band were in need of a hit. It’s only natural that Hunter would want to pay tribute to his friend who departed the world just months before this album’s release. He reels off lyrics that are biographical, touching upon how Bowie enriched everyone’s lives along the way. These thoughts are made more poignant by working various Bowie hits and mythologies into the lyric, suggesting “[you] turned us all into heroes”, before adding that David dragged us out of a black and white world, “the prettiest star, made us wonder about life on Mars,”, being a man with “the voice, the look, the songs that shook”. There’s even a cheeky reference to Trevor Bolder (Bowie’s silver sideburned Spiders From Mars bandmate who died in 2013), as well as a nod to Woody Woodmansey and a blatent lift from Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ – of huge relevance as, firstly, the Mr. Jones in question refers to Bowie himself while, secondly, the thin man is perhaps even a tongue in cheek reference to The Thin White Duke… If that were not enough, “My brother says you’re better than The Beatles and The Stones” updates an original lyric to add some extra gravitas. ‘Dandy’ is celebratory and loving. ‘Dandy’ is smart. More than that, though, ‘Dandy’ is heartbreaking.
‘Fingers Crossed’ might not be as consistent as ‘When I’m President’ and doesn’t include anything as immediate as that album’s title cut – a number as good as anything Hunter wrote in his youth – but it provides approximately forty five minutes of solid entertainment. His voice may be more ragged than ever, but his reflective song writing befits a man who’s been there and done it all. It’s unlikely to reach out to many new listeners, but for Ian Hunter’s loyal and devoted fan base, it’s another fine record to add to his musical legacy.