Style: ragged, raspy alt-country; compare to Bill Mallonee, John Mellencamp
Top tracks: "The Gulf of Mexico," "Meet Me in the Alleyway," "This City"
Steve Earle's colorful life takes on a more subdued, sepia-toned wistfulness on his latest album. His long string of excellent alt-country albums may be exceeded only by his long string of relational swapmeets and brushes with the law, so it's a bit of a surprise to hear the reflective, mildly domesticated singer and songwriter who emerges over the course of the album's eleven songs. Apparently, outlaws do mellow with time.
Renowned producer T Bone Burnett buffs the songs to a warm, reverb-drenched glow that perfectly fits the thoughtful approach. Greg Leisz plays wispy pedal steel lines that snake around the songs, and Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins plays hoedown fiddle, contributing to Earle's most overtly country album in more than a decade. There are no real rockers here, and the preponderance of ballads lends itself to introspection. And Earle serves up more than his usual share of introspection, ranging back to his childhood memories on opener "Waitin' on the Sky," pondering the joys and perils of an independent nature on "Lonely Are the Free," and joining new wife Allison Moorer on the cautiously optimistic love song "Heaven or Hell."
There's also a newfound sense of spiritual searching here. Earle has characterized the new songs as "all about mortality in one way or another," and there's certainly ample evidence that he has weighty matters on his mind. Alas, some of those matters receive only the most cursory treatment. To that end, "God is God" is not quite an agnostic anthem, but it's hardly a ringing endorsement of a particular religious worldview. "I believe in God," Earle sings, "and God is God." Yep, that sorta covers it, Steve. Sorta. More successful is the genuinely creepy "Meet Me in the Alleyway," a blues-based snarl, and the most raw and adventurous song on the album, which finds our intrepid narrator wrestling with the Grim Reaper at midnight.
In spite of the sometimes melancholy and morbid tone, Earle is still an ornery cuss, and he's still at his best when he's pestering and hectoring the rich and powerful (the umpteenth Steve Earle anti-Bush screed "Little Emperor") and commiserating with/standing up for hard-pressed workers ("Gulf of Mexico," which celebrates the oil-bedeviled fishermen of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama). He wraps it up with "This City," a heartfelt tribute to the indomitable spirit of New Orleans.
I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive is not a radical reinvention, but it is further evidence of Steve Earle's songwriting prowess, and it's a taste of where a cantankerous hellraiser now slouching past middle age might be headed. It's another fine addition to a superb catalog.
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