Master of Disaster – John Hiatt
New West Records 3011
Contrary to what fables suggest, slow and steady doesn't often win the race, but it's a good strategy if you want to stay in it for a while. When John Hiatt came on the scene circa 1974, it was still the era when having Three Dog Night release your song as a single was a key push out of the gate for a new artist. These days, a new audio breakthrough seems to be required with every release as the boring old CD fights for survival in the age of iTunes, so SACD and the Sonoma System figure prominently in Master of Disaster’s press material.
Once the disc gets into your player of choice, though, it's as if nothing much has changed since Hiatt first arrived. His voice has gained grizzle since the old days, and the lack of production pizzazz suggests that no one's trying too hard for a hit anymore, but it doesn't matter. Surrounding himself with a mix of the old guard (producer Jim Dickinson and Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood) and dedicated devotees (Dickinson's All Star sons Luther and Cody), Hiatt serves up a familiar but fresh brand of Heartland rock with folk and country touches and articulate lyrics.
With Hiatt following hard on the heels of Springsteen's Devils and Dust, a comparison is inevitable. When Springsteen puts out an album, whether he hits it right can mean the difference between defining the decade and sparking Time stories asking if he’ll recover. With Hiatt, it’s more like the difference between going gold and getting dropped by his latest label. The nice side of it, though, is that he escapes Springsteen’s solemnity: Master of Disaster’s immigration saga, "When My Love Crosses Over," offers simple sweetness rather than the turtle-eaten corpses of Bruce’s "Metamoras Banks," and Hiatt slips attention-grabbing lines into even the most innocuous songs ("Lots of men of died so that you and I can ride/in my Thunderbird").
Listening to this, I couldn't resist thinking that at least one song, "Ain't Ever Goin' Back" (milking midtempo drama out of a character who has doubtlessly been back many times), could have made a good Three Dog Night single. Hiatt seldom gets ahead, but few have done a more appealing job of circling. "There's my point/I'll see you in another joint," he sings on the title cut, and Master of Disaster is a testament for artists who find hitting a never-ending series of joints to be a satisfying point in itself.