Foggy production dulls roots legend’s 2011 Grammy contender.
Ninian Dunnett 2011-04-21
Steve Earle’s talent has never been in doubt, and his commitment to the rootsy genre he dragged into popularity in the 80s has never wavered. And if this T-Bone Burnett-produced album isn’t a standout, it still has plenty going for it.
In the last decade Earle settled into the sort of steady output that began netting him Grammy Awards after all these years (three, like compensation, between 2004 and 2010). He’d been polishing up his CV too, acting on TV, writing an off-Broadway play, producing albums for other people and publishing his first book of short stories.
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive even bears the same title (and nearly the same release date) as the Texan’s first novel. And like the book’s protagonist, it is haunted by the ghost of a previous generation’s maverick troubadour, Hank Williams. It’s a rag-bag of a collection, though, including songs from Earle’s 2008 album with Joan Baez as well as This City, from the New Orleans TV series Treme.
But it wouldn’t be Steve Earle if there wasn’t a bit of grit in the oyster. And alongside the latest creditable Irish tub-thumper (The Gulf of Mexico), some tender ballads and a fair share of brawny twang, the two most compelling songs here circle on a single cramped groove. Meet Me in the Alleyway evokes Tom Waits – all scratchy gutter blues and megaphone monologue – while Molly O is a fiery folk-punk love song.
On the downside, Burnett and his house band ladle on the shimmering guitars, splashy drums and pulsing bass, and Earle’s voice struggles in the fog. In any case, the man has influenced music too much to ever again sound as fresh as he did on Guitar Town or Train a Comin’ – records that never won at the Grammys, but worked their way into people’s hearts. His creative fires are burning steady, still, and if you care for him you’ll want a seat at the hearth.