John Hiatt enjoys a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. Other musicians as celebrated and diverse as Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Guy, Ry Cooder, and Elvis Costello have sung his praises as well as his songs. Hiatt’s also known for releasing albums that have ranged in quality from mediocre to brilliant. There seems to be no rhyme or reason or way to predict it. Sometimes he’s spot on, as with Bring the Family and Crossing Muddy Waters. Other times the records suck, like Perfectly Good Guitar and Little Head. The problem is that when you buy a Hiatt album you never know which Hiatt you’ll get. His new release falls somewhere in the middle. A few songs are instant classics, sure to be recorded by other more popular artists and remain part of his repertoire for years. Others are, well… just plain boring. The worst case occurs when this happens on the same tune — one that starts out kicking ass with a deep groove that turns into a tiresome rut.
Legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson recorded this disc in the city’s Ardent Studios with his two sons Cody and Luther (who are also two-thirds of the North Mississippi Allstars) and Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood (father of Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood). They provide greasy and pulsating rhythms over which Hiatt can articulate the lyrics. He possesses an odd, affected vocal style rooted in the blues. Hiatt sings from the back of his throat, which gives his voice a glottal tone and adds an ache to the lyrics. Think of that other Memphis musician Al Green for a stylistic comparison, but with a much more limited vocal range.
The production works best on the story songs such as “Cold River”, in which the musical accompaniment recalls the sound of the title river flowing and the life of the protagonists who are always moving on down the road. The tale concerns two low-life drifters that desert their baby Moses style, letting him float downstream to be found and taken care of by another woman. “Some women love their babies / Some women won’t have one / Some Texas woman found him and we’re still on the run,” Hiatt sings in the voice of the woman who gave birth and left her child without regrets. The song doesn’t pass judgment on the characters involved and lets the listener ponder the circumstances.
The martial cadences of “Howling Down the Cumberland” enhance Hiatt’s lyrics about a determined lover. “My life is like a cutting wind,” Hiatt wails, as he assays the obstacles to happiness he will need to chop through. Although the song goes on a little too long, the character’s metaphorical concerns are all cleverly constructed. Unfortunately this is not true on several of the other tunes, including “Master of Disaster”, “Wintertime Blues”, and “Love’s Not Where We Thought We Left It”. These tracks start out well, often with a catchy riff and sharp lyrics, yet end poorly. The tunes would be a whole lot better with careful pruning. Dickinson needs to edit Hiatt’s verbosity as the songwriter just comes up lame variations on a theme that get less interesting each time.
That said, Hiatt delivers some killer lines even on the most mundane cuts. Consider “Thunderbird”, a tune about one’s love for an automobile. There must be hundreds of such songs, many of them no doubt in tribute to the particular car model that the song gets its title from. Hiatt gulps the words down like his downing a bottle of beer, which makes things initially interesting. He turns word “Thunderbird” into a five-syllable word that gurgles from his chest to his head voice. The lyrics meander like a Sunday drive in the country. Then Hiatt shifts out of cruise control and puts it into overdrive. “They make ’em that way,” he croons in a soulful voice. He repeats the sentiment four more times before the song comes to a stop, each instance more desolate than the last. Hiatt’s not really singing about the car anymore but the driver whose loneliness can best be soothed by driving fast on the open road. He’s chanting the American dream of Whitman, Kerouac, and endless others in a voice that embraces us all.