Master of Disaster
Playing July 30 at the Ryman
Write what you know," goes the cliché. But on "Master of Disaster," the title song of John Hiatt's new album, the veteran writes about what might have been.
The song opens with a middle-aged musician sitting in his underwear, an endless river of cocaine rushing through his veins. His tongue is oozing blood, his heart pounding and his mind wondering why he's still alive. "Ship to shore," the man thinks to himself, making his own mayday call. "I can't see the coastline anymore."
It's prime Hiatt, alternating between a detailed description of a hardcore troubadour's descent with a broader view of a life steeped in the blues as lived. He sets it all to a honking, roadhouse shuffle fueled by a sinister baritone sax and a bad-ass Delta rhythm section, over which he tells his story in a nearly spoken narrative, soaring with empathy and pain on the chorus.
Hiatt's subject, a rock guitarist, may be burnt out, but he's obviously a true talentor at least he once was. These days, as Hiatt portrays him, "He gets tangled in his Telecaster / He can't play it any faster," a vivid portrait of an instrumentalist desperately trying to wangle help from the last friend to turn away from him.
It wasn't always that way, though. At one point, when the guy went into a solo, "Every note just shook the plaster," Hiatt sings. "Now he's just a mean old bastard when he plays the blues." Saddest of all, there's no resolution, just an implication that the road keeps going oninexorably.
For Hiatt, the song mixes ghosts of tours past with decades of observing what the road and its indulgences can do. Sober for 20 years, he rambled at the cliff's ledge long enough to know how rough and dangerous it is to stay there. Survivor that he is, he's also seen his share of damage and death. And, as someone still on the road in his early 50s, he doesn't need an eight-ball of dope to know the challenges of getting it up onstage night after night.
Which makes it all the more remarkable how consistent Hiatt remains. After 31 years and 18 albumsnot counting at least six compilationshe can still hit another high point, too.
Master of Disaster won't get the notice or attention that was given to Hiatt's '80s masterpieces, Bring the Family and Slow Turning, and, in truth, it's not as groundbreaking or fresh. Those albums crystallized the sound Hiatt had been seekinga smart, simmering blend of R&B, blues and heartland rock that highlighted his sharp songwriting without sacrificing grooves or melody.
In the past 15 years, Hiatt's gone through stages of concentrating on songs of redemption and randiness, but on Master of Disaster he gets gruffer. He brings a harsh truth to the raw rhythms of "Love's Not Where We Thought We Left It." Sounding like a mean ol' bastard on "Ain't Ever Goin' Back," he snarls, "I see her face at every shitty bar I have to play to pay for this guitar."
Throughout his career, Hiatt has borne fresh fruit when finding the right collaborators, be it a guitarist like Sonny Landreth or Kenny Greenberg or a band like The Goners. Master of Disaster is no exception. In an inspired move, Hiatt hooked up with veteran Memphis musician Jim Dickinson, who's produced records by The Replacements and Ry Cooder and played piano with the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin, and with his sons, Luther and Cody Dickinson, of the Southern boogie band The North Mississippi Allstars.
Hiatt always sounds better when his intense, sandpaper voice goes for a dirty sound rather than pristine production, and that's the forte of all three Dickinsons. There are plenty of veterans on the album, from Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood to a horn section featuring saxophonist Jim Spake. But the young Allstars keep it from sounding too professional, as a late-night neon haze keeps working itself into the arrangements.
Not everything is heavy. "Wintertime Blues" is a jug-band blues that Hiatt has a ball singing. And not everything works. "When My Love Crosses Over" makes an illegal immigrant tale sound as dramatic as a riverside stroll, while "Old School" is a stone-country song that comes off as an emotionless genre exercise. But what matters are the keepers, as well as the fact that Master of Disaster, while named for a lost cause, proves that Hiatt is still finding a way.
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