It’s been almost four years since Steve Earle released an album of his own material. In the mean time he’s kept busy…acting on HBO’s The Wire and Treme, recording an album of Townes Van Zandt songs, producing Joan Baez’s 2008 album Day After Tomorrow and writing a novel, also titled I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive. The title is taken from a Hank Williams song of the same name. Apparently, Williams’ ghost is a character in Earle’s novel. It also sounds like it’s a part of this new album.
Producer T Bone Burnett has applied his trademark dusty sound to Earle’s ancient-sounding country songs. As usual, Burnett’s session players, drummer Jay Bellerose, pedal steel player Greg Leisz, fiddle player Sara Watkin and guitarist Jackson Smith (son of Patti) all provide a beautifully-played backdrop for Earle’s craggy voice. It’s a voice that seems to be getting craggier with age. Earle’s slurred delivery makes deciphering the lyrics to songs like Little Emperor (an attack of George W. Bush) something of a challenge. He doesn’t sound this way on every track, so it may be an affectation. If it is, it’s rather annoying. The following song, The Gulf Of Mexico finds Earle in full sea shanty mode, again his delivery sounds somewhat affected, like he’s about to break out into his best pirate impersonation.
Two songs have been taken from the Joan Baez album…God Is God and I Am A Wanderer. Both are solemn meditations on life and death…Earle states in the liner notes that most of the songs are “about mortality”. Meet Me In The Alleyway has a ramshackle Tom Waits vibe to it thanks to the distorted vocal, clanky percussion and wayward harmonica playing. Most effective is Every Part Of Me, a simple, heartfelt love song in which Earle states “my last breath will bear your name”.
Earle’s wife, Allison Moorer chimes in with some harmonies on Heaven Or Hell and the album closes with This City, the Grammy-winning tune from Treme featuring a horn arrangement by Allen Toussaint.
Overall, the mood is fairly downbeat throughout the album. Burnett’s production is wonderful, as usual, and so is the playing. The songs, however, could be a bit stronger, particularly the melodies. Earle’s world-weary vocals begin to sound tired by the album’s end. In that respect, this is an album to be admired, if not exactly cherished.
Click here to listen to Every Part Of Me from I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive: