One of the great things about John Hiatt, and there are many, is that he is not hip. That's
not to say he isn't cool (however you define such a thing), or that he doesn't
write great songs or make great records; it's just that he isn't hip. You won't
find groups of artfully disheveled, terminally ironic individuals sitting around
downtown hot spots eagerly discussing Hiatt mostly, I'm willing to bet,
because they wouldn't know Hiatt if he smashed a perfectly good guitar over their
heads. But since Hiatt isn't hip, he's not affected by the whimsical laws of
the hip universe. Which is great, because if he was, there's a pretty good chance
he wouldn't have lasted these 30-odd years; he would have been a brief flash
in the pan, loudly hyped and quickly forgotten. OK, technically that did kind
of happen, but he continued to work at his craft and has since come to be one
of the most celebrated songwriters around, with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Bob
Dylan, Willie Nelson, B. B. King, and Eric Clapton covering his songs. And on Master
of Disaster, he continues to do what he does best.
This time around, Hiatt enlists the help of producer Jim Dickinson and two-thirds
of the North Mississippi All-Stars Luther Dickinson on guitar and Cody
Dickinson on drums. Rounding out the lineup is veteran Muscle Shoals session
man David Hood on bass. The results, however, aren't quite what you might expect.
There are none of the frenetic jam-band antics typical of the North Mississippi
All-Stars; instead, the All-Stars and Hood provide a subtle, sinewy backbone
for Hiatt's songs, while at the same time wrapping them in a certain depth and
this backdrop, Hiatt delivers a batch of songs that powerfully evoke certain
places, certain times, certain characters, with an eye for detail and an understanding
of the complexities of human behavior seldom seen in songwriters these days.
If anything, the songs on Master of Disaster deal with choices, the choices
we face every day some
relatively mundane, some dangerous and difficult. "Thunderbird" falls into the
former category, focusing as it does on the singer's choice of car, and his ability
to convince his love to join him for a ride. "My Thunderbird, my Thunderbird/
She's the voice of the future/ Baby, have you heard/ Tomorrow's taken wing on
my Thunderbird," Hiatt sings over a gently propulsive rhythm. The car becomes
a symbol for freedom and choice, carrying the singer away from the reckless and
destructive decisions others have made: "Willy Loman's saying something/ I can't
hear a word/ I'm going too fast in my Thunderbird."
In "Cold River," however, the stakes are much higher and the choices much more important. One of Hiatt's strengths perfectly displayed in "Cold River" is his ability to write narrative songs, songs that sketch out characters while telling a story. This song focuses on a couple who make their living on the edges of society: "He worked the small towns hustling nine ball/ She hooked the truck stops too." With two simple lines, Hiatt perfectly defines his characters, using details that would normally be overlooked: "She was slipping on her stockings/ Lord it made the sweetest sound." I won't reveal the choice these two face part of the power of the song is the way Hiatt reveals it but it is one Hiatt addresses without a hint of judgment, just a desire to tell the story of two people.
The album isn't all serious character studies, however. "Wintertime Blues," a jaunty, ragtime-tinged jazz number, highlights Hiatt's playfulness and sense of humor: "Three hours of daylight and all of them gray/ The suicide prevention group has all run away;" "And it's three, four/ I'm stiff as Al Gore/ Come on over baby/ What have we got to lose/ Just a nasty case of these ol' wintertime blues."
At the heart of the album are three songs that deal with musicians. The title track, "Master of Disaster," tells the tale of a blues singer broken down by age and, possibly, drugs: "Close one there/ Choking in clean underwear/ Bleeding tongue/ Eight ball pounding in my lungs." Of course, there's a woman too, and the memory of her and his past glory has left the main character nearly impotent: "But the Master of Disaster/ Gets tangled in his Telecaster/ He can't play it any faster / When he plays the blues." In "Ain't Ever Goin' Back" Hiatt becomes a blues singer himself, pitching his voice in a lazy wail, channeling the ghosts of Memphis bluesmen that inhabit the entire album. Once again, the singer is haunted by a woman and the past, and the only way he can deal with the pain is through music: "I see her face at every shitty bar/ I have to play to pay for this guitar/ I ain't ever goin' back no more." "Back on the Corner" finds yet another musician, perhaps late in his career, doing the only thing he knows how to do: "Back on the corner/ I'm singing the blues/ I can see my reflection in the shine of your shoes."
It's tempting to read these songs as a reflection of Hiatt's own anxieties over
his musical powers and where he'll eventually end up, but I don't think it's
necessary to do so. The songs examine what it is like to grow older, and the
fears that attend the passage of time. Rock 'n' roll requires youth and energy
for its survival, but that combination doesn't always equal worthwhile or lasting
music. Hiatt, as a musician and a man, is growing older, and Master of Disaster proves
that there is beauty, depth, and energy in the process. There's more to great
music, it seems, than youth, energy and hipness.