There has long been an appealing duality fueling the songs of John Hiatt.
One side represents the family man: a blissed-out husband and father who spins love songs as if they were penance for a previous life misspent. The other is much darker: a sage-like teller of more turbulent tales from the troubled world around him.
Ever since 1987's album Bring the Family set those contrasts in balance with masterful support of the band that came to be known as Little Village, Hiatt has released one gem of an album after another, full of songs that keep listeners guessing as to which side of the coin his emotive songs fall on.
Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, in this context, is no different — which is a good thing. The comfort songs have a folky, spiritual warmth, and the uneasy ones owe considerably to the stark, ageless restlessness reflected on the album photos of worn country churches and battered home fronts.
Come to think of it, you can literally judge Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns by its cover. The inside booklet opens and closes with two tight profile shots of Hiatt. One has the songwriter caught in a huge grin. The other is a near duplicate, but with his eyes turned forward with all hints of a smile erased.
Musically, the album wastes no time in playing its meaner hand. On the opening Damn This Town, Hiatt outlines a gallery of family demons — a brother shot dead in a poker game, a drunken father who dies insane, and a thieving sister "filled with hate." The music is similarly extreme as a churchy organ intro gives way to a sledgehammer guitar riff. The beauty is that Hiatt saves the song's dirtiest secret for himself ("I can't let my mama tell you what her youngest boy did").
All the Way Under is more musically deceptive and morally redemptive. It sprints along with a spry acoustic country groove colored by dobro and accordion and a generally sunny melodic disposition. But the lyrics reflect a life hardened by time spent in a region suggested by the song's title — a place that displays "all your good gone bad."
There are also several world-class love songs (Hold on for Your Love, I Love That Girl) that let some light through these collapsing story lines. But there is no mistaking just how powerful Hiatt's songs sound when the chips are allowed to stay down.
"It's always the last one in who's in a hurry," Hiatt sings with hushed scorn at the conclusion of Down Around My Place, "to try and slam the door in the next one's face."
That's Hiatt for you — a master songsmith smitten by the world's beauty but beholden to its more sober realities.