I was wrong about the last two Steve Earle albums. A longtime fan, I’d come in around Copperhead Road, done my retroactive research via Guitar Town and Exit O, and stayed loyal through the subsequent troughs and peaks of Earle’s personal and professional life. Against critical consensus, I found desperate beauty and brave truth in “drug period” albums like The Hard Way; in line with critical consensus, I was overjoyed when Earle began his road to recovery and became the prolific, sober workaholic we now know (musician, producer, novelist, playwright, actor, activist, DJ, etc. etc.). Always possessed of a razor sharp insight, albeit often blunted by confusion and blundering, Earle’s mature wisdom seemed to grow with each change of beard and haircut. The current incarnation—a cool mixture of balding, Rubinesque biblical sage, Dave Van Ronk-like folkie veteran, and shitkicking big city hillbilly—is as convincing and suggestive as any of the Steve Earles we’ve previously witnessed.
But the music on 2007’s Washington Square Serenade seemed like Earle-lite, a brew of familiar stylistic tricks frothed up with a new musical innovation or two (this was Earle’s first Pro-Tools album), the end result a bit too mellow and pleased with itself. Which is not wishing to reinforce the myth that great art comes from suffering, nor to want Earle or anyone else to have to revisit those places of pain that inspired earlier (Earleier?) works. Along with great songs of pain and regret, Earle has written great songs of contentment. But now Earle seemed to be channeling a bit too much of that contentment. He might be singing about joe like a good ol’ boy, but the New York-themed album seemed more latte than hard caffeine.
As I say, I was wrong. That album speaks to me now with a quiet intimacy, emotively punctured with Earle’s instantly recognizable Texas drawl and masterful phrasing. So too with 2009’s Townes, which I first heard as a too-faithful set of songs by my favorite songwriter, but now hear as an imaginative and poignant tribute to a lost and much missed friend and mentor. It seems a necessary and logical evolution of the relationships first brought to light in the classic Heartworn Highways documentary on the 1970s alternative country scene, an assertion of Earle’s place in a community and tradition.
So I want to be careful with I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Earle’s first album of self-penned material since Serenade and one that, like Townes, makes explicit connection to country ancestry by adopting the title of one of Hank Williams’s finest songs. It’s tempting to suggest that ifTownes was the hymn to the father, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive is the recognition of the grandfather. Perhaps it is, but unlike Earle’s forthcoming novel of the same name, the album’s not “about” Hank. If there is a theme, it’s probably, as Earle suggests, something to do with mortality. In that sense, at least, the album’s title makes perfect sense, for Hank Williams knew a thing or two about mortality. What he couldn’t have known was that his early trip to Hillbilly Heaven would assure him immortality down below. He never made it out of the world alive, but he’s lived in its imagination for a long old time.
So, mortality and ancestry are possible ways into this initially unassuming album. The ancestry stretches beyond country music into folk and rock precursors. Earle is associated—and clearly associates himself—with a tradition of songwriting that is doubly committed: committed politically, as his numerous protest songs attest, but also committed to the art and craft of songwriting. Washington Square Serenade was, after all, partly a homage to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s. Earle may have famously claimed that he would stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table to proclaim Townes Van Zandt the finest songwriter in America, but the invocation of Dylan was still a claim on the songwriting tradition with which Earle and Van Zandt most identified. “Steve’s Hammer”, near the end of Serenade, acknowledged another father figure in Pete Seeger and two songs on the new album made their first appearance on folkmother Joan Baez’s 2008 album Day After Tomorrow, which Earle also produced.
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive replays a variety of styles Earle mastered long ago, from Celtic-flecked folk to turbo-powered country rock to reflective thought pieces. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, though it’s questionable whether Earle has assembled the best of his past styles on this collection. The opening tracks drift by in a haze of familiarity with little to make the listener (at least this listener) stop short and demand an instant replay, a typical response to so many previous Earle tracks (“Guitar Town”, “Ellis Unit One”, Christmas in Washington”, “Ft. Worth Blues”: the list goes on). That piercing element often arises from a combination of Earle’s grainy, heavily accented voice and a unique phrasing that turns seemingly simple lyric fragments into epic observations, truly transcendental blues. At his best, Earle can sing a word and make you think you’d never heard it before, a quality he shares with other great songwriter-interpreters like Dylan, Richard Thompson, and Dick Gaughan.
That reconfiguring voice seems to be missing from this album. What we still have, though, is fine songwriting. Earle recently told an interviewer that this was the first record where his sole purpose was “to raise the literary bar” (rather than to make a particular political, social, or personal point) and there is plenty of evidence of his craft on display here. The musically plodding opener “Waitin’ on the Sky” is saved by the use of uneven line lengths in the verses, the final lines hanging over just a bit too long and hooking the listener in. A mixture of blues, bluegrass, and strained hillbilly vocals spice up “Little Emperor”: trademark Earle styles, as effective here as ever. Some vivid imagery enlivens “Gulf of Mexico”, an oil shanty that tells the story of three generations of rig workers in “the days before the spill”. Again, the combination of traditional style, topical subject matter, and narrative mastery is typical of Earle and, to a certain extent, other Texas balladry (Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, Butch Hancock).
Despite its slight predictability and its debt to the Clancy Brothers and the Pogues, “The Gulf of Mexico” asserts itself as the first really strong number on the album and, following repeated listens, it gets under the skin and into the head. The next standout is “God Is God”, one of the tracks recorded by Baez and given a laidback, reflective reading by its composer. Because Earle’s work has always been marked by a strong sense of age, memory and experience, lines like “I’ve traveled around the world / Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness” carry a believability and poignancy that help to carry the song. Again, staggered meter gives the song a deep hook, and there’s even a bit of old-time Earle language-mangling thrown in.
“Meet Me in the Alleyway” uses Tom Waits-style vocal distortion and carnival/swamp-blues style. Again, Earle’s been here before on previous albums, and he even covered Tom Waits on Washington Square Serenade. The two men are temptingly comparable: both inveterate multi-taskers whose extra-musical activity is often as notable as their regular work; both early adopters of a late voice; both prone to mix corrosive tales of lowlife adventures with tender ballads of exquisite ragged beauty; both veterans who’ve been through a number of musical styles but who’ve moved into a kind of versatile reliability (or reliable versatility, if that’s kinder). You generally know what you’re going to get from their albums. Which doesn’t mean there’s anything bad here, just an absence of anything new. To evoke another obvious comparison (and obvious Earle reference point), there’s something of the late Springsteen syndrome.
When the songs are as strong as “Lonely Are the Free”, a classic Earle slow number showcasing that voice and that “Goodbye”-style minimalist guitar picking, it may not matter to many Earle fans. We are, I guess, a patient and loyal bunch and will be able to overlook much of the unsurprising material here to focus on the handful of gems. Two more come at the end of the disc. “I Am a Wanderer” utilizes a bewitching guitar line that circles around the lyric, allowing the music to echo the migrations of the various “I"s voiced by the singer (refugee, laborer, prisoner). Then there’s “This City”, the track Earle contributed to the HBO series Treme, in which he made an appearance. As befits the series, the track comes replete with an Allen Toussaint-arranged brass section, adding a keen sense of loss, longing, and revival to this Springsteenesque tribute to the spirit and persistence of New Orleans. More of this kind of thing would be very welcome indeed. A Steve Earle and New Orleans brass album? Now, that would be something new and fine.