John Hiatt
Master of Disaster (2005)

When you’ve made as many records as Hiatt has (this is his seventeenth studio album), you’ve likely broken all the new ground you’re going to plow, and made all the grand statements you ever needed to make. Your music, if it was ever any good to begin with, becomes about refinement; about looking up and down the road, separating the ruts from the grooves, and settling comfortably into the latter.

And so it is with John Hiatt. Though he’s indulged in a certain amount of experimentation — turning up the amps on 1993’s Perfectly Good Guitar; going unplugged for 2000’s Crossing Muddy Waters — in terms of basic sound, anybody who buys his albums knows what they’ll get. The only question is whether he’s feeling it; an extremely prolific songwriter, Hiatt releases an album roughly every 24 months, and he sometimes sounds as if he could use a little rest (case in point: 1997’s Little Head). Happily, the answer to that question here is a resounding “Hell yes.”

The album has two things going for it right off the bat: Hiatt enlisted the legendary Jim Dickinson to produce, and members of the North Mississippi Allstars to back him. Hiatt’s albums never stray too far from Memphis, but these two ingredients keep Disaster good and greasy, and wholly rooted in Cumberland mud. It smells like barbecue sauce.

Let’s talk about sound. The first thing you notice when listening to the album is how damn thick it is at the bottom — if Master of Disaster was a woman, she’d be Shakira, or Jennifer Lopez, except neither of them are from Memphis. Maybe Ma Rainey instead. Whatever. The point is that this is far and away the best-sounding record I’ve heard all year; you get a fat and healthy low end, but it leaves plenty of room for the stuff on top. Dickinson recorded the album with a Direct Stream Digital console, and he and Hiatt couldn’t shut up about how great it sounded; that kind of crowing usually deserves to be dismissed out of hand, but in this case, it’s the truth. Every instrument on this recording glows with warm clarity.

It would have been a shame if all this had been wasted on subpar songs; Hiatt’s been known to reel off some clunkers, and is sometimes too clever for his own good. He’s at his best when refracting his beloved Memphis blues through a lyrical lens that is alternately warped and weary, but always brilliant. He’s at his best on Master of Disaster. In closing, I’ll just shut up and let him speak for himself:

Just a creature in the dark
Longing for one blessed spark
To burn the sky and heat the night
With love reborn by morning light
But nature doesn’t heed the call
Nature just commands, that’s all
— “Howlin’ Down the Cumberland”

My daddy was a salesman
My brother was too
I would sell anything
Just to try to stay with you
— “Thunderbird”

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

Well, it’s the same old drill
For Punxsutawney Phil
If he sees his own shadow
I’m shootin’ to kill — “Wintertime Blues” (download)

When men become more ladylike
I’ll see you in the candlelight
When women come to be like men
We’ll be ashamed to fight again
No jealous God’s the only one
Father, mother, ghost and Son
Love’s unorthodox
Changes all of nature’s clocks
To time remaining
Just twenty-four hours
For lovers in training
Bitter, salty, sweet and sour
— “Love’s Not Where We Thought We Left It” (download)

Well he packed up his suitcase
‘Cause the deal gone down
She was slipping on her stockings
Lord it made the sweetest sound
— “Cold River”

So I found some open country
I forgot the past
I don’t care if you want me
‘Cause nothing matters anymore baby
‘Til I find you at last
— “Find You At Last”

Used to take seven pills
Just to get up in the morning
From seven different doctors
With seven different warnings
I’d call ‘em up to say I’m coming apart
They’d say, “Call us back when
“The fireworks start”
— “Back on the Corner” (download)