Steve Earle: The Warner Bros. Years

The albums collected in the Warner Bros. Years boxset stand together as confident announcement not just of return, but of complete rejuvenation.

Steve Earle

The Warner Bros. Years

Label: Shout Factory
US Release Date: 2013-06-25
UK Release Date: 2013-06-25

Open the liner notes booklet to Steve Earle’s boxset The Warner Bros. Years – which covers roughly 1995-1997 – turn a couple pages and you meet a glossy, stylized photo of … David Simon, creator of the television shows The Wire and Treme. It’s odd, but it’s part of the set’s general slant: that the three albums Earle made during this period were made by someone who went through dark periods of his life and made it out a better person and better songwriter. Simon cast Earle as these sorts of characters in both of those TV shows, first as a recovering addict who serves as a mentor to an addict/police informant and then later as a freewheeling troubadour.

In his liner-notes essay, Simon tells his stories of meeting and casting Earle in a way that ties his perception of Earle the man together with his perception of Earle’s music and how it gained in scope and power in this period, when Earle dove headfirst back into music after jail and addiction treatment. “An act of resurrection,” Simon calls it, contrasting it with the life of Earle’s hero Townes Van Zandt, who “succumbed to the demons of his addictions.”

Song notes and album notes by Earle, and an interview with him, situate this music the same way, and tell a similarly powerful story of rebirth. Earle: “What I hope people take away from this period of my life is this: Don’t let anyone tell you there’s any correlation between being creative and being fucked up … I’ve done way more shit sober than I did fucked up.”

The impact and legacy of that f’d-up-ness is part of the content of the three studio albums – Train a Comin’, I Feel Alright and El Corazon – but not in a simple way. Train a Comin’, an energetic album driven by mandolin, dobro and acoustic guitar, begins with a train song that it’s hard not to hear – as in most train songs – as a metaphor, this time for addiction or other wrong paths we know we shouldn’t go down but can’t resist, though they “ain’t bound for nowhere.”

The album contains a lot of these smart rewrites of American roots music history and its relatives. So not just a Van Zandt cover (“Tecumseh Valley”, one of his most brutal sad songs), a song dedicated to Doc Watson, a duet with Emmylou Harris, a heartbreak song perfect for country jukeboxes (“Sometimes She Forgets”, a hit for Travis Tritt) and a couple folk narratives about outlaws and soldiers, but also a Beatles cover and a Jimmy Cliff cover, which are reminders of the healthy appetite American music has and pointers towards the more eclectic direction Earle would head a couple albums later.

To say this is an album of folk or traditional music would be to downplay the fire in it, and the brutal minimalism of something like “Goodbye”, a heartbreak song by someone who has abused his own memory: “Most Novembers I break down and cry / But I can’t remember if we said goodbye.”

Between that album and the next is when Live at the Polk Theater was recorded, in Nashville, with both Harris (on three songs) and Bill Monroe making appearances. The live set is mainly a reminder of how ragged and controlled Earle could be at the same time.

I Feel Alright, recorded in 1996, starts with some of that rough drive. The first song, “Feel Alright”, ends, “I’ve been to hell and now I’m back again.” The original album liner notes contain Earle’s brag that someone challenged him to make a record after serving time, “SO I MADE TWO.” The album does bear more of the mark of his experiences, and more of an overt F-U to doubters. There’s “CCKMP” (as in “Cocaine Can’t Kill My Pain”), a song about the snowball effect/freight train of addiction, another outlaw narrative, “Billy and Bonnie”, and “The Unrepentant”, an anthem for conquering your demons. And there’s “South Nashville Blues”, which Simon used in his show The Corner because, he writes, it was the song the recovering addicts he interviewed in Baltimore could most relate to.

The album also has moments that show off Earle’s sense for melody (“Hard-Core Troubadour”, “More Than I Can Do”) and again show his way with classic heartbreak material. There are a few songs here that could/should have been hits, for Earle or a more polished singer. The last song, “You’re Still Standin’ There”, manages to capture the deep yearning behind the searching-around in the darkness – “I’ve spent my life following things I can’t see / And just when I catch up to them / They slip away from me.”

The live DVD To Hell and Back comes next chronologically, and it was filmed at Cold Creek Correctional Facility – a fact not unrelated to Earle’s life story, as the MTV special tells us at the start that part of Earle’s probation dictated he would play a concert in a Tennessee prison. While this isn’t quite Johnny Cash at Folsom, it does allow for the voices of the prisoners along with that of Earle the survivor.

Earle talks up the value of trusting your heart over your head in his album note on 1997’s El Corazon, and it’s appropriate. The album is a pull-out-all-stops window into his way of thinking. He manages to muscle up his working-class folk songs into something more like Springsteen/Mellencamp/Petty, but with sharp historical, political and emotional storytelling, too. The album opens with a call for revolutionaries of the past – Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, Malcolm X – to rise from their graves and help us out. It ends with a gentle/sad blues that’s one of several songs fixated on place, on the loneliness of it. Places abound on El Corazon, and they don’t always have positive connotations. There’s a Supersuckers-backed punk song about the reality of NYC versus its glimmer and an old C&W-style song about the temptation of “The Other Side of Town”. The love songs (or heartbreak songs, really) get at the emotional connection between people and places. For example, “Somewhere out there in the world tonight / Just out of my reach / I hear your heartbeat.”

That song, “Somewhere Out There”, is lyrically a relative of “I Still Carry You Around” (a song with the Del McCoury band, ahead of their later album-length collaboration) and musically related to “If You Fall” and “Poison Lovers” in how they place Earle as an arena artist, as writing big anthems that put melodic strength behind his modernized versions of classic emotional material.

El Corazon is also a grand statement of not just survival but intention to do something now that he’s survived. He sings in “Here I Am”, “As for me / I got scars / For every mile I’ve traveled so far / And some blood on my hands / Here I am.” The album, and by relation the whole Warner Bros Years boxset, is a confident announcement not of return but of complete rejuvenation.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.