sun 31/05/2020

CD: Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive

CD: Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive

Is the Texas troubadour spreading his various talents too thin?

This is Earle's first collection of new material since 2007's Washington Square Serenade, since when he has made a disappointing tribute album to Townes van Zandt, taken a role as a street musician in HBO's New Orleans series Treme, and written a novel, also called I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Signs are he may be spreading himself too thin, because this new disc is best described as patchy, and is unlikely to end up as anybody's favourite-ever Earle album.

Washington Square Serenade succeeded because it had some gripping songs, a unifying theme (Earle's move from Tennessee to New York), and also found him tinkering with Pro Tools recording software, which pushed his music into some different spaces. This time he took the more conventional option of recruiting producer T-Bone Burnett, who has given the songs a kind of boots-and-saddles roughness but little in the way of a recognisable sonic signature.

All is not lost. Opening track "Waitin' on the Sky" is a loose rockabilly lope that bounces along over booming bass and slapping drums, while Earle drawls out a potted autobiography, expressing amazement that, given his chequered history, everything has worked out surprisingly well ("Didn't know that I was gonna live this long, now I'm sittin' on top of the world"). Also easy to love is "God is God", a simple folk-rock tune assembled from bass, drums and chiming guitar with lyrics pondering faith and belief. It's all the more effective for its lean, simple phrasing ("I believe in God and God ain't me... Whether or not I believe doesn't matter at all").

Trouble is, a lot of the other material sounds like it's a couple of rewrites short of the finished article. "I Am a Wanderer" is the kind of off-the-peg folk balladry that Earle can churn out by the yard, while his love song "Every Part of Me", presumably to wife Allison Moorer, will surely make the poor woman wonder what she can have done to provoke such a soporific dirge.

Other songs resemble shadows of better Earle pieces. The raw fiddle and banjo tune "Molly-O", drenched in stark minor chords, is like "Oxycontin Blues" revisited, while the doomy megaphone drone of "Meet Me in the Alleyway" recalls "Way Down in the Hole", except that in the earlier track Earle was at pains to make his lyrics audible. Throughout I'll Never Get Out..., his drawling voice is dragged to such slurred extremes that you find yourself crying out for surtitles. This naturally tends to blunt the impact of his social-commentary songs, "Little Emperor" (which nips at the ankles of George Bush) and "The Gulf of Mexico" (the BP oil spill remembered in a mock-Irish ballad). On iTunes, you can get his rather fine version of the Hank Williams song that gave the album its title. Lord knows why he didn't include it on the CD.

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