Steve Earle: “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”
Steve Earle’s latest hijacks its title from a Hank Williams song, and it almost deserves it; the set is monumental, if not quite in terms of its quality then at least in terms of its historic pairing of Earle, one of American roots music’s most enduring singer/songwriters, with its most honorary in-house producer and self-appointed keeper of the flame, T-Bone Burnett. It might, in another time and place, be a definitive collaboration– and I’m sincere in my hope that it’s not the last time their paths cross. For now, though, it’s noteworthy largely for how the two men seem to be moving past each other, Earle firing on all cylinders and doing some of his best songwriting in ages, Burnett falling into something of a rut.
I’ll start with the rut, just to get it out of the way early. T-Bone used to have a reputation for his light touch– for the lack of a distinctive “T-Bone Burnett sound.” I have heard him called the anti-Lanois, and there was a time when that designation really rang true. The T-Bone Burnett of 2011, however, has rather unfortunately commandeered some of Daniel Lanois’ least desirable characteristics (even as Lanois himself is doing some of his most vital work). Everything he touches, it seems, is buried under layers of reverb and echo. That approach actually worked pretty well for last year’s John Mellencamp album, where the slapback enhanced the album’s Sun Records vibe, but it’s much less successful on the Steve Earle album. A friend noted that, quite frankly, this record sounds like it was recorded in a tunnel. Fair enough: Where once Burnett’s work was exemplary for the way he refused to distract from the songs and the singing, his echo-heavy signature has, at this point, become a true obstacle.
And what a shame. If ever a Steve Earle album deserved to have its songwriting spotlighted, I dare say it’s this one. Earle comes to this record as an artist who is, creatively, pushing himself farther than ever before– the album releases two weeks ahead of his first novel and in the midst of his shooting the second season of Treme, the HBO show in which he acts and for which he wrote the Emmy-nominated “This City,” included on the album– but the real story of creative resurgence here is that of how totally in control of his songwriting powers Earle seems, as though his Townes Van Zandt tribute album gave him a sense of focus and craft that’s been largely absent from some of his recent, more politically indignant (and artistically sloppy) records.
There’s really just one dud here– an attempt at big-picture philosophizing called “God is God,” which never gets any deeper than its title. The inclusion of “This City”– a hymn to the resilience of post-Katrina New Orleans– illuminates some of the album’s other worldly concerns, chiefly “The Gulf of Mexico,” a political protest and ecological fable wrapped up as an Irish folk song, and masterfully executed here, its layered, dark humor standing in stark contrast to some of Earle’s more on-the-nose political instincts that are, thankfully, absent here.
But some of the other songs are even less pointed. “Lonely are the Free” is a lovely, solemn number that seems to recast quintessential American virtues even as it celebrates them. Even better is “Little Emperor,” a nasty, fiddle-drenched barroom sing-along that’s deliciously spiteful in a “Like a Rolling Stone” sort of way– but who, exactly, is the target of Earle’s venomous assault? It could be George Bush, quite frankly– a reference to “shock and awe” is the closest thing to a concrete detail here– but it could just as easily be any bigwig who’s overdue for his comeuppance. It doesn’t matter much: The song’s indignation is sharp, and all the more convincing because of Earle’s sense of craft and restraint.
The sense of craft is part of what makes the Hank homage of the album’s title so fitting; just as the grandfather of country music brought focus to his honky-tonk tales with some Tin Pan Alley technique, so, too, does Earle bring structure to his country-rock songs with stray splashes of formalism from other genres. This is seen most clearly in “Molly-O,” a banjo-and-fiddle-laced song that, like “Gulf of Mexico,” seems to trace its roots to Irish folk music, but also nicely expands on Earle’s own songwriting legacy with its mix of insurgence and romance. And I will, by the way, give credit to T-Bone for what he brings to the arrangement on this one, even if I’m not crazy about the actual sound; the fiddle and banjos are as tastefully integral to the song’s success as the horns are to “This City.”
And there’s good stuff in abundance throughout the record: I have a fondness for the grimy electric blues of “Meet Me in the Alleyway,” which cops its attitude and its distorted growl from a Tom Waits song and actually benefits, I think, from T-Bone’s low-overheard production style; “Heaven or Hell” is a really wonderful country love song duet with Earle’s wife, Allison Moorer, though alas, it’s also one of the greatest casualties of T-Bone’s reverb obsession; and opener “Every Part of Me” is a light and airy little folk number that sets an appropriate tone of intimacy. Really, it’s almost all aces in terms of the writing– and I don’t just mean the lyrics but the melodies as well, which are tremendous– and though the material isn’t presented in a way that really allows it to shine, it’s still a joy to hear Steve Earle back in fighting form, doing some of the most vital work of his songwriting career.