It’s the words and images — rather than the music — that you remember after listening to John Hiatt’s new record, Mystic Pinball.
You remember the motorcyclist with no helmet who slams into a concrete drain pipe in the song “It All Comes Back Someday”. You remember the note found in a dead lover’s breast pocket in “Wood Chipper”. You remember the alcoholic who turns to the bottle because he thought he saw his long-estranged wife across town in “One of Them Damn Days”.
Hiatt, who’s been making music for nearly 40 years now, has always been a great writer of lyrics. He has a gift for creating vivid characters and then elegantly capturing their weaknesses, their despair and occasionally, their moments of triumph. And he does it all with a sly sense of humor. That’s why the Americana Music Association gave him its Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting Award a few years back. It’s why his work has been covered by an array of artists that includes Bonnie Raitt and Iggy Pop.
Mystic Pinball, Hiatt’s 21st record, proves that his lyrical skills have not dulled in the slightest. As usual, Hiatt explores the Big Topics — love, betrayal, loss, happiness. But he has such a sharp eye for detail that each one seems fresh and specific.
Consider the song “My Business”, a portrait of a marriage on the brink of collapse. Hiatt depicts the gloom and isolation between the couple with uncanny wit and precision: “She wakes me up in the mornin’ / Cold coffee and a crust of bread / Pillows fluffed up like a body / I look over and there ain’t no head.”
In the ballad “I Know How to Lose You”, the narrator movingly recounts his habit of bouncing from woman to woman in an effort to distract him from the memory of his true love: “Down the hall, she turns out the lights / I’ve left before the dawn / No words said, not one tear shed / But for awhile you’re gone.”
Unfortunately, the music on Mystic Pinball isn’t nearly as memorable. Hiatt and his band deliver well-crafted but predictable meat-and-potatoes rock throughout. The country-fried guitar and bluesy rhythms are pleasant, but never surprising.
In addition, producer Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, who also helmed Hiatt’s last record, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, gives most of the songs a big, airy, polished sound. The anthemic choruses on tracks like the first single “We’re Alright Now” and “You’re All the Reason I Need” seem tailor-made to be blasted from car speakers while cruising down a sunny highway.
And hey, nothing wrong with that. But I think the album would have benefitted from a messier, rougher musical approach. The sonic sheen that’s present here makes the songs feel cold and distant. Worse, it takes some of the power from Hiatt’s twangy, weathered voice. You feel this particularly on the quieter songs, which rely on intimacy, on Hiatt’s ability to convey emotion with his singing.
Many Hiatt fans will probably be pretty happy with Mystic Pinball. It delivers the same musical goods that have been Hiatt’s specialty for decades. And the lyrics are as sharp as any in Hiatt’s body of work. But those who had hoped for another masterpiece from this veteran artist, something like Hiatt’s 1987 gem Bring the Family, for instance, might be a bit disappointed by an album that offers familiar pleasures without stretching for new ones.