By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


June 28, 2005

John Hiatt
"Master of Disaster"
New West Records

Singer-songwriter John Hiatt has expanded his canvas on "Master of Disaster," a rich, challenging CD in which images of America through the 20th century and rootsy American music forms collide with Hiatt stories and confessions of love, loss, regret and resignation.

For his 21st album, Hiatt journeyed to Memphis to work with all-star producer Jim Dickinson and Dickinson's sons, drummer Cody and guitarist Luther of the North Mississippi Allstars.

The result is a more acoustic and varied musical landscape, closer to "Crossing Muddy Waters" (2000) than "Beneath This Gruff Exterior" (2003). Whereas "Exterior" dealt with Hiatt's battles with alcohol and depression, and celebrations of family milestones, "Disaster" deals with missed opportunity.

In "Thunderbird," a breezy shuffle, Hiatt uses the original '50s two-seater as a metaphor for America's then-limitless future. But this euphoria will not last forever: "Willy Loman's saying something/I can't hear a word/I'm going too fast in my Thunderbird," Hiatt sings in reference to Arthur Miller's cautionary classic, "Death of a Salesman."

"Master of Disaster" chronicles a man who failed to take a chance on love and is now "tangled in his Telecaster . . . a mean old bastard when he plays the blues," and Luther Dickinson's slide guitar carries the country-tinged "Ain't Ever Goin' Back," with its stark images of pint bottles, bus trips and bars.

"When My Love Crosses Over" places a love story amid images of the Western expansion of a young nation, and the growling, angry "Love's Not Where We Thought We Left It" explores jealousy, control and aggression in love.

Hiatt has some fun in the mood-changing "Wintertime Blues," a Kinks-meets-Dixieland romp; horns and organ give a Memphis-Al Green kick to "Find You At Last"; and the closer, "Back on the Corner," finds a musician -- Hiatt? -- "singin' for my supper" after a life lived with the best intentions but beset by grievous hardships.

That much of this album is also danceable shows just how much Hiatt remains at the top of his game.