I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive
New West Records
Steve Earle's first new album of original songs in four years will likely be touted as a return to form. At the very least, it will sound instantly familiar to anyone who has followed Earle's career to this point. If it falls short of a complete triumph however, it's only because the man has set the bar pretty high, especially on eclectic tour de force gems like 1997's El Corazon and 2000's Transcendental Blues.
Earle here enlists go-to Americana producer T-Bone Burnett for a song cycle that despite its variety could have perhaps used a few more rockers. That being said, there is some strong stuff here.
"Waitin' on the Sky" is a chugging little old timey-sounding opener that wouldn't sound out of place on a record by Steve's son, Justin Townes Earle. Fiddle and mandolin lead the way on "Little Emperor," which is perhaps the perfect marriage of Burnett's traditional tendencies and Earle's gruff, break-all-the-rules aesthetic.
Irish music, perhaps owing to its influence on bluegrass, has always been a touchstone for Earle. Here Celtic melodies and instrumentation turn up on "The Gulf of Mexico," which tells the tale of a family of shrimp boat fisherman and references last year's Deepwater BP oil spill, and "Molly-O," a darker, banjo-and-fiddle-tinged number that challenges Earle's limited vocal range.
"God is God," an Earle original first recorded in 2008 by Joan Baez for an album Earle produced, sounds like yet another homage to Earle's hero Townes Van Zandt (his last album was a collection of Van Zandt covers) with perhaps a touch of John Prine. "Every Part of Me" and "Lonely Are the Free" are the kind of pretty, acoustic ballads Earle has been doing for years (think "Goodbye" from 1995's Train A-Comin').
He goes back to the deep south for "Meet Me in the Alleyway," a distorted, harmonic-fed, dirty blues number that seems more like a genre exercise than an enjoyable song.
Much stronger is the trio of songs that concludes the album. Earle's wife, Allison Moorer, contributes intriguing harmonies to "Heaven or Hell," a spooky tune highlighted by a pretty 12-string acoustic guitar figure and a touch of pedal steel. "I Am a Wanderer," another tune cut first by Baez, provides one of the record's stronger melodies as well as another challenge for Earle's ravaged voice.
Set closer "This City" was written for the HBO series Treme. Backed by a horn section arranged by the great Allen Toussaint, Earle pays tribute to the resilience of the city of New Orleans and its people in the years since Katrina. "This city won't wash away / this city won't ever drown," he sings.
It's a surprisingly hopeful note to go out on for an album that at its core is about mortality. But much like the Big Easy, Earle is a survivor. And I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive proves that he's still got a lot of life in him yet.