John Hiatt has been at it for such a long time without a bona fide hit of his own that the guy surely deserves some kind of lifetime underachievement award.
He's been making records, after all, since 1974, when his still-thrilling debut, "Hangin' Around the Observatory," beat Elvis Costello to the punch with razor-sharp, gruffly delivered words that anticipated the bespectacled one's early sound but also owed plenty to soul greats like Sam & Dave and Otis Redding.
Along the way, Hiatt has survived drug addiction, an embarrassing foray into synth-drenched new wave (see 1982's "All of a Sudden" for details) and even a stint with would-be supergroup Little Village, an ego-addled collective that also featured living legends Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder.
Through it all, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter has just kept on keeping on, cranking out reliably excellent albums that thrill his moderate-size fan base while piquing the interest of more commercially viable artists such as Bonnie Raitt, who charted back in the '80s with Hiatt's "Thing Called Love," and Bon Jovi, who -- along with the likes of Joe Cocker, Jewel and, yes, even Mandy Moore -- once recorded "Have a Little Faith in Me." That gospel-inflected ditty worthy of a tent revival originally appeared on Hiatt's highly recommended 1987 platter, "Bring the Family."
Now comes "Master of Disaster," and it's no faint praise to say that the new disc is of a piece with Hiatt's earlier work. The electric-folk title track, which kick-starts the album, is a hook-laden short story that finds our master of ceremonies sporting a "bleeding tongue" and an "8-ball pounding in my lungs" while slowly morphing into a "mean old bastard when he plays the blues."
The harmonica- and tremolo-bedecked "When My Love Crosses Over," meanwhile, checks in on a pair of lovers lying flat on their backs near the banks of the Mississippi, gazing up at constellations while contemplating a pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals. "Howlin' Down the Cumberland" is similarly literary-minded, tracking a character who's "caught like a deer in my own headlights" while Hiatt's accomplished backing group -- which includes two members of neo-Southern-rockers the North Mississippi Allstars -- marks time with a stately finger-picked arrangement.
Elsewhere, Hiatt and his band serve up breezy ragtime ("Wintertime Blues"), melancholy country-folk ("Cold River") and bluesy balladry ("Ain't Ever Goin' Back") that conjures up both the Allman Brothers and '70s-era Rolling Stones. And if George Jones doesn't record "Old School," a mid-tempo honky-tonker just perfect for country-bumping with your favorite dance partner, a serious crime will have occurred.
Presiding over the whole affair is Jim Dickinson, the producer extraordinaire (and father to Hiatt's Allstars) who has manned the boards for everyone from the Stones to the Replacements.
This time out, and per his usual tack, Dickinson lets the songs speak for themselves. And with a songwriter of Hiatt's caliber, that's an especially smart strategy. Indeed, as with each record the guy makes -- well, with at least one dubious exception -- it's tempting to call Hiatt's latest the best of his illustrious career. And who knows? Maybe "Master of Disaster" will even be the one that finally nets him his first -- and very richly deserved -- hit.