Year of the Album — #019
Steve Earle – “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” (2011, New West Records)
It’s been four years since we’ve gotten a new album of originals from Steve Earle, and aside from 2002’s Jerusalem, it’s been a long long time since we’ve gotten a raw, relevant album from Earle that didn’t verge on didactic (The Revolution Starts Now) or overly reverent (Townes). But, though I write this only based on a few listens, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, named after a Hank Williams song, comes the closest to matching the raw energy of 1988’s Copperhead Road without sounding like Earle is overreaching or retreading old ground.
It’s been more than two decades since he wrote the material for that album, and he’s clearly not the same guy — this album’s much more mellow musically, but the songwriting’s as focused and impressive as anything he’s done since cleaning up in the early 90s. Most important, however, is that he’s no longer trying to compete with James McMurtry for the title of “most political songwriter” — instead, he’s focused on telling the stories of his multi-faceted characters, and what results is an unbelievably timely album, what may be his most honest since his early country work, including Guitar Town.
“Molly-O” is a real stunner, nothing like what we’ve heard from Earle’s last half-dozen albums — it’s an unabashedly straightforward celtic-folk number fueled by the fiddles in the background and by Earle’s scorched vocals. “Someday I’ll sing from the gallow’s pole, one final dance for my Molly-O,” he sings, and it’s going to be an impossible task to get this out of your head once you’ve let it in.
And “Waitin’ On The Sky,” the album’s opener, is a surprisingly deft look back on his teen years, “living in a military town waiting on the sky to fall,” wondering what was going to happen to him and his friends as their draft numbers came up for Vietnam. “Looking back it must have been a miracle now I ever grew up at all,” he sighs, and the honesty comes through as the band concocts a zydeco-fueled stew worthy of repeated sampling.
The album’s deserving of repeated listens, and though first impressions are favorable, I suspect this is one of those albums which will benefit even more from long-term attention. This is, however, easily one of Earle’s best albums, a spectacular return to form from a generation’s most remarkable songwriters. The album is a wonderful surprise in what has already been a very good year for lovers of great music.
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