John Hiatt's heard it all before. Over 40. Past his prime. Lost his edge. Too old, too tired and, lately, too happy to still be relevant.

"Too happy is the one that gets me," Hiatt growls over the phone from L.A. "Has anyone ever been too happy?"
These days, Hiatt should be able to answer that one for himself. Last week, A&M Records released Perfectly Good Guitar, his first studio album in more than three years. Loaded with impeccable songcraft and buoyed by a new, young band, the disc is a shining return to form for a man who over a 20-year career has shown himself to be both a memorable performer and one of America's finest songwriters.

Perfectly Good Guitar has come at the perfect time in Hiatt's career--just as he seemed about to slip into musical complacency. In the waning years of the spend-happy Eighties, Hiatt walked away from a notoriously corrupt lifestyle to settle down and raise a family. Although he steadfastly denies it, becoming a contented adult--as opposed to a troubled hellion--had a definite effect on his music.

The first album to come from this new-look Hiatt, 1988's Slow Turning, seemed to confirm that he'd made the right choice. Powered by singles like "Drive South" (later covered by Kelly Willis, among others) and "Slow Turning," along with gorgeous sleepers like "Icy Blue Heart," the album proved to be the breakthrough he'd been searching for since 1974's Hangin' Around the Observatory.

But Hiatt's next album, Stolen Moments, lacked some of the old bite. Instead of raw emotion, stormy relationships and scrimshaw miniatures of society's misfits, his songs now explored peace, love and understanding. Although it was easy to be happy for Hiatt the man, fans couldn't help but miss his old scoundrel's touch.

Singer-songwriter may be the only profession in the world where it helps to be unhappy. Like Jackson Browne before him, it seemed that once Hiatt stopped suffering, his work suffered. The melodies weren't quite as enchanting. The lyrics lost their fire. And the upbeat rockers lacked bloodlust. Creativity often depends on madness, and Hiatt, it seemed, had traded his for home and hearth.

But just when many were about to read him his last rites and move on to the new generation of songwriters he inspired, Hiatt's hound-dog voice is back howling at the moon.

Perfectly Good Guitar is a varied collection that shows Hiatt has a few more words to get in before he leans back and starts reprising his glory days. From the first cut, the aptly titled "Something Wild," it's clear that this is not going to be a sensitive singer-songwriter record. "With your leadoff track, you look to put out your 'modus operandi' for the whole album," Hiatt says. "Something Wild' just about says it all, don't you think?"

Make no mistake: Metallica is not in danger. This album isn't that loud and heavy. Although the guitar rasp is heavier and the bottom end does kick now and then, Hiatt's overall style hasn't changed. He's still writing countrified pop tunes that occasionally get funky or rock out. He's also continued to pen his trademark tender love songs. "Blue Telescope" here is the latest in a long line of lush Hiatt laments whose high point may always be "Have a Little Faith in Me." Lyrically, Hiatt's wry eye has mellowed just a bit. Like all his albums, Perfectly Good Guitar is a snapshot journey through his often-tormented pysche.

Admitting early on that, "Girl, you know sometimes I don't think right" (Something Wild") and "I'm never gonna figure out the way I feel" (Straight Outta Time"), he gets closer to the heart of his beliefs in the album's most accomplished tune, "Buffalo River Home." In that song, Hiatt weaves singsong nonsense together to show that his once-potent cynicism and anger have turned to resigned understanding. "Just when you think you've got a grip/Reality sneaks off, it gives you the slip/As if you ever knew what it was/Takin' you down the line." Along the way, Hiatt stops at several intellectual outposts familiar to old fans. In the title cut, an earnest young man (the young Hiatt?) who never got the expensive guitar he wanted condemns the Pete Townshend school of guitar smashers. And then there's "The Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari," the latest in a long line of songs about sociopaths that includes "Trudy and Dave" from Slow Turning.

"It's a little story song. The main character is a guy who's lost his mind. It was inspired by newspaper accounts of one of those guys who looks normal but goes berserk," Hiatt says with a self-effacing laugh. "A classic John Hiatt song--a dark character, desperate, in trouble, in trouble deep. Doesn't know how to get out. Doesn't know how he got there. All put to a lilting melody."
The genesis for Perfectly . . . occurred last year during what turned out to be a too-good-to-be-true Little Village tour. Made up of Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner, Little Village was an attempt to recapture the simple, honest dynamic the same quartet stirred up five years before on Hiatt's masterwork, Bring the Family. (A year after Bring the Family, Hiatt attempted to reassemble the same group, but was foiled by contract problems. A second "all-star" album with David Lindley and John Doe was later scrapped.) The problem with Little Village was that musical magic like Bring the Family is spontaneous. That album was clearly a Hiatt solo record, and was made in four days with no fanfare and no shortage of vicious personality conflicts. The self-titled Little Village disc, on the other hand, was a calm, group effort that was planned and hyped to death. The creative sparks that effortlessly flew during this foursome's first meeting this time refused to fire. Although it was a well-played, solid collection of tunes, the album sounds like a band trying too hard.

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