June 7, 2013
It must be tough for artists to come up with a new batch of songs every few years, to sound fresh, invigorated and alive every go around. However, for some it seems effortless, awing and amazing us with each new release.
The best of the batch ~ Springsteen, Mellencamp, Cash, Petty, Waldman, Crowell, Seger, Bullens ~ are all absolute masters of walking a musical tightrope, equally balancing the personal and the observational.
Every one of the artists/writers listed above is willing to open up their heart and soul to the listener, then, with the flip of a switch, can be telling us about the lives, loves, losses and longings of the everyday people around them.
There's no doubt in my mind that Steve Earle has earned a place on that list. For over a quarter of a century now, he's been honest, sincere and real with us, sharing his joys and frustrations, anger and insight, short-comings and triumphs.
Nowhere is that more evident than on his latest release, THE LOW HIGHWAY. Expertly blending his own experiences with those around him, Earle touches upon (among other things) addiction, Katrina, insecurity, the economy and having a child late in life. Perfectly weaving in and out of each of these worlds, he is at his observational/introspective best. Seriously...in an already stellar career, this truly is a high point!
Things kick off with the thoughtful, vivid title track. With it's sublime arrangement, minimal instrumentation and simple, unadorned lead vocal, "The Low Highway" rivals anything Springsteen has recorded in the last thirty years. Just lovely. (Special kudos to Eleanor Whitmore and her KILLER fiddles!!).
I love it when Earle ROCKS...there's a Stones-esque quality and vibe that's just undeniable. Such is the case with "Calico County." With it's three chords, infectious backbeat and a-wink-and-a-nudge lead vocal, this little beaut gets under your skin and stays there, leaving you humming it long after the disc has ended. Love, love, LOVE this song!!!
There's both a beauty and a sadness to "Burn It Down." The arrangement and vocal are gorgeous, while the lyrics just tear at your heart. From the opening line of "When I was a boy, there were no limitations", the words just tumble out of the speakers, all raw and naked and brutally sincere. Gut-wrenching and breath-taking, all at the same time.
"That All You Got?" is another favorite. This Cajun-flavored duet between Earle and wife Allison Moorer starts out as a paean to a litany of woes ("Worry and pain? That all you got?"), but ends up as a victorious in-your-face rally cry ("Gonna spoil my day/Give it your best shot/Another hurricane?/Is that all you got?"). Once again...love it!!!
The only way to describe "Love's Gonna Blow My Way" is "fun." If you didn't know better, you would almost swear this was an old Ragtime gem from the 20's....you can almost see a sultry flapper vamping her way across the silent, silver screen! And the absolute lilt in Earle's lead vocal??? Oh...my...God! Crazy good!
There's a timeless quality to "After Mardi Gras" that is just so dang mesmerizing. Like one of those great 60's songs with a catchy melody and heart-breaking lyrics, this song has you tapping your toes and tearing up, all at the same time! Instrumentation, vocals, lyrics....all sheer perfection. Yep, sheer pop perfection.
"Pocket Full Of Rain" is another favorite. With it's Vince Guaraldi-like piano groove, this track is just cool with a capital "C." Between the smooth arrangement, funky instrumentation, growling lead vocals and autobiographical lyrics, well, it doesn't get much better than this. Yet another one of TLH's high points!
There's a vulnerability to "Invisible" that's just palpable. Graced with an understated, yet sublime, lead vocal, the track's true stars are it's lyrics: "An angel bendin' down/To whisper in your ear/You turn around but we're invisible." What can I say? It just doesn't get better than this....easily one of Earle's best tracks to date.
It's at this point that things take a slight dip. It's not that the next three cuts are bad...it's just that everything else is so, so strong!
As earthy as "Warren Hellman's Banjo" is, there's just something calculated and...forced...about the cut. It's just not as organic and REAL as (most of ) the rest of the disc. That said, there's no denying the instrumentation is top notch. We'll call this one a draw.
"Down The Road Pt.II" also seems half-baked...we've heard this song numerous times before from Earle. To say that he's moved beyond this type of thing is an understatement....on an album anchored by so much honesty and truth, it just seems like filler, and I can't think of anything worse.
"21st Century Blues" also has a recycled vibe/sound to it...it easily could have been an outtake from JERUSALEM in 2002 or 2004's THE REVOLUTION STARTS...NOW! The track just sounds kind of simple, sophomoric and, yes, whiny. Earle has SO grown beyond this pseudo-angry, yet, ultimately, light-weight fluff. A rare miss.
The disc closes with a lovely ode to the artist's young son, "Remember Me." With it's minimal arrangement and heartfelt lead vocal, the cut is just brimming with honesty, beauty, sincerity and charm. Simple, delicate and full of love, this is the perfect note to wrap things up on.
So many of those things that can be found on "Remember Me" can also be found throughout (most of) THE LOW HIGHWAY. To say that this is one of Steve Earle's strongest releases to date just doesn't do it justice....with his latest effort, Earle takes a giant step forward, elevating an already brilliant career up another notch or three. And after twenty-five + years, how many acts can say that? Bravo! (As with all my reviews, I'm giving the disc an additional half a star for including the lyrics).