Steve Earle grew up in Texas and was raised at the school of
Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. He wrote a couple of hits for other country
musicians, When You Fall In Love (1982) and
and finally debuted with the EP Pink and Black (LSI), that contains
Nothin' But You.
Guitar Town (MCA, 1986) shocked the scene with a loud and frantic
sound that mixed rockabilly, honky tonk and blues, and borrowed the emphasis
from Bruce Springsteen's populist rock
(Guitar Town, Goodbyes All's We've Got Left,
My Old Friend The Blues).
Rhythm and guitars were even more prominent on Exit O (1987), whose
highlights are Someday and I Ain't Ever Satisfied.
The next stage was
Copperhead Road (1988), which is basically a rock and roll album.
Copperhead Road, Johnny Come Lately and
The Devil's Right Hand are also characterized by
sinister and pessimistic lyrics that reflect his unhappy private life.
This progression culminated in The Hard Way (1990), a collection
of strong compositions that run the gamut from
the Warren Zevon-ian epic Justice In Ontario
to the lullaby Close Your Eyes,
from the poignant The Other Kind and Regular Guy to the
bleak West Nashville Boogie and
His next album was never released.
Four marriages, a drug addiction and several arrests had taken a toll on
Cleaned of the drug addition, Earle recorded an acoustic album,
Train A Comin' (Winter Harvest, 1995), that contains stark
numbers such as Can't Remember and Ben McCullough.
Earle staged an impressive come-back with
I Feel Alright (Warner, 1996), a collection as good as
The Hard Way. Besides the self-portraits of Hard Core Troubadour
and I Feel Alright, Earle rocks (The Unrepentent) and
weeps (Valentine's Day). The pathos is electrifying in the
plaintive odes South Nashville Blues and
Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain.
Earle could not repeat that masterpiece, but El Corazon (Warner, 1997)
still has a handful of classics: N.Y.C., Telephone Road,
Somewhere Out There, Taneytown There.
After Mountain (E Squared, 1999), a traditional bluegrass album,
Earle matched any of his own achievements with
Transcendental Blues (Artemis, 2000), a mature statement of an artist
at the peak of his evocative powers (the celtic spices of
The Galway Girl, the sensitive When I Fall).
Transcendental Blues and Everyone's In Love With You emanate
the ethereal and mystical quality of John Fahey's surreal folk.
Jerusalem (Artemis, 2002) is a metaphysical meditation on the
state of the world after the September 11 terrorist attack
(John Walker's Blues, Ashes to Ashes). This is simultaneously
the most political work of Earle's career and his most daring sonic experiment
(Conspiracy Theory is almost techno).
Amerika v6.0 borders on Fugs-ian agit-prop
(but borrows the riff from the Rolling Stones).
The Revolution Starts Now (Artemis, 2004) is the counterpart to
the vastly superior
Jerusalem: the action after the meditation. Unfortunately, it turns
out to be mostly political propaganda in preparation for the highly-charged
2004 elections that opposed George W Bush and John Kerry. Earle is on the
latter's side, but can't turn his political stance into a universal message
the way a Bob Dylan could.
Relocating to New York, Earle devoted
part of Washington Square Serenade (2007) to his new city
(Tennessee Blues, Down Here Below, City of Immigrants),
to love songs to his wife (Sparkle and Shine, Days Aren't Long Enough)
(Jericho Road, Oxycontin Blues, Steve's Hammer).
So the album is a triple serenade: to New York, to his wife and to the world.
The arrangements are the barest of his career, except that Earle has converted
to the drum-machine, perhaps a side-effect of being catapulted in the
21st-century urban music of New York.
Townes (2009) was an album of
Townes Van Zandt covers.
I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive (2011) was a collaboration
T-Bone Burnett, whose polished sound leaves
a stronger impression than the singer's compositions. These paint the middle-aged artist as a philosopher (God Is God), historical bard (The Gulf of Mexico) and agit-propagandist (Little Emperor), with diminishing
musical returns. The one notable song is the
swamp-rockabilly Waitin' on the Sky (with a stoic melody reminiscent of Creedence Clearwater Revival).
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