Joe Ely has been releasing albums under his own name since the late 1970s, and the muses have typically been on his side. Like his frequent touring partner, John Hiatt, he’s never managed to strike with a commercial audience despite a canonization in singer-songwriter circles, his name always spoken in hushed, reverential tones wherever three or more are gathered with a guitar, a can of pork and beans, and a starlit night full of pickin’ and grinnin’. Ely, his fans, his peers, and maybe even his pets, have probably given up hope that he’ll ever achieve anything approaching commercial success, and that’s OK, but we’ve all come to expect that a bad Joe Ely album is probably better than a good album from some lesser although more visible artists.
The trouble is, Satisfied at Last is a weak album, period, whether it bears the name Joe Ely or Joe Blow. Maybe it’s telling that one of the tracks is “Not That Much Has Changed”. Although it’s probably not Ely’s acknowledgement of artistic resignation, it sure sounds like a man who isn’t working very hard to up his game. There are boarded-up windows, ways of life fading, easy rhymes, and predictable guitar licks aplenty, but nothing that distinguishes the tune from a bajillion other observations of aching and aging. “Satisfied at Last” features a troubadour looking back at his trials, tribulations, and contemplating the moment when he moves from this world to the next—it’s predictable enough that you can almost hear the guitars rolling their eyes with each chord and the microphones yawning in disbelief.
The same might be said for “Live Forever”, in which Ely sings about crossing the river—and not the Llano or the Colorado. It’s full of sage advice as Ely struggles to sound profound while he plays the part of a man slowly moving toward his twilight years. He musters a faulty chorus that gets repeated one too many times in a slender three minutes, but there’s nothing in this Billy Joe Shaver-penned song that is worthy of Ely at his best. There’s also the half-baked reggae number “Roll Again”, which isn’t worthy of a band playing a back alley pizza joint on a Tuesday night, let alone one of the giants of American songwriting. Equally forgettable is “I’m a Man Now”, an attempt at swamp blues that only winds up sound like a man stranded in the woods with his foot in the mud.
But this is Joe Ely, and like Merle Haggard, John Hiatt, and Willie Nelson, he can always muster at least one or two tunes that remind us why we love him in the first place—and those moments here are “Mockingbird Hill”, a song that most writers would give their careers to receive, and the closing “Circumstance”, which says in five minutes what Ely spends more than 25 minutes trying to say elsewhere on the album.
This is Ely’s first studio outing in four years, but let’s hope that it’s not quite so long between this and his next one, and let’s hope that next time he’s a little less satisfied and a whole lot hungrier. Most artists are at their best when they have something to prove rather than something to celebrate.