Back when Tower Records was still a thing that existed, I was employed by them in their Harvard Square store and I worked with a dude named Tom who was of the opinion that a really great thing about Steve Earle is that he puts out about an album per year. So if you don’t like whatever the new Steve Earle album is, you don’t have a long wait before the next one comes out. Mind you, Tom wasn’t accusing Steve Earle of preferring quantity over quality; he was praising the man’s work ethic.
The Pitchforkers have repeatedly asserted (and not entirely without reason) that Earle’s recent work has been “uneven for some time now,” and I can see why they might think that, but I look at it more as Earle recording exactly what he wants to when he wants to and not thinking about it much at all. In 2007, he wanted to work with the Dust Brothers on Washington Square Serenade, so he did. He wanted to make a tribute album to Townes Van Zandt, so he did. And this year, he wanted T-Bone Burnett (who produced Elvis Costello’s awesome King of America record back in the 1980s, among other great folkish recordings) to produce I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. And so that happened too.
Obviously, Earle’s seemingly lax process (assuming I’ve pegged it right) can yield some clunkers – I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive has one or two – but it also lends Earle’s music a sense of immediacy, warmth and intimacy that I very much enjoy. Perhaps that has led me to forgive Earle the occasional misstep, but perhaps the good folks over at Pitchfork simply want to like Steve Earle more than they actually do like him (I’ve had this problem with some bands myself and it has led me to make really terrible attempts to justify to myself the repeated listening of stuff that is just not for me. Subjectivity’s a bitch, ain’t it?).
Earle released The Revolution Starts…Now! not too long before I started working at Tower, and we listened to it fairly frequently in the store (we were forced to skip the track “F the CC” when the boss was in because of its delightfully liberal use of one of my very favorite words). Though I never owned the album, I found a fairly consistent quality to it and I find the same quality in I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Where the album fails, it seems like Earle is sacrificing lyricism for plain ol’ (but – let’s face it – boring ol’) earnestness, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s a pretty all right way to fail. Earnestness can’t make song good, but it can leave me disliking a song and still very much respecting the singer. Whatever else you want to say about Steve Earle, he means – sometimes to a fault – every single note he sings and plays. The trade-off is that Earle’s good songs absolutely transcend his bad ones, to the point that you can very easily forget about the bad stuff.
But I don’t want to (and hell, I don’t need to) try to excuse I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive as a mediocre album doomed by the good intentions of its creator. It’s a pretty good album with a few flaws here and there, none of which are unendurable. In fact, the first three tracks on the album are excellent. Opener “Waitin’ On the Sky” is a rollicking country rocker that convinced me (admittedly, this wasn’t that hard to do) that Crazy Heart really should have just been about Steve Earle and – like fellow grizzled musical survivor Neil Young – Earle displays a facility for ripping songs straight from the headlines on “Gulf of Mexico” which is about exactly what you think it’s about (in case you’re lost and/or watch more American Idol than actual news, I’m referring here to that time in the all-too recent past when BP spilled a bunch of oil in the Gulf and then John “Boner” Boehner suggested that it was only right and proper for the American people to pay for the cleanup. This led Boehner to adopt a new official slogan: “John Boehner: Yep, I’m an Asshole”). Rather than ranting for five minutes against the unadulterated greed of a company that sacrificed safety (and, ultimately, a large chunk of the environment) for profits, Earle tells the store of several generations of men as they make their livings in the Gulf, culminating in the youngest man witnessing “the guts of hell” spilling into the water. It’s one of the most inspired songs on the album, along with the beautiful closer “This City” which is about New Orleans (hey, did you know that New Orleans is right near the Gulf of Mexico? You know, where that fucking oil spill was?) and its recovery from Hurricane Katrina. “This City” features a muted horn part that is best described as “exquisite” and taken together, the two songs show Earle’s creative instincts at their best.
There are three songs on I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive that I can live without: “God is God,” “Meet Me in the Alleyway,” and “Heaven or Hell,” which is a duet with Allison Moorer (to whom Steve Earle is married). “God is God” is one of those songs where Earle tells you, very plainly indeed, what he believes. It’s nice stuff – Earle isn’t a fundamentalist asshole or anything like that – but the song is a little dull, which is my exact criticism of “Heaven or Hell.” “Meet Me in the Alleyway” is actually my least favorite song on the album, largely because it is such a shameless ripoff of Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits that I feel a little embarrassed listening to it. I don’t quite skip the song every time I listen to I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive though; in fact, I haven’t skipped it once. It’s as if I need to hear the worst thing about a Steve Earle album right next to all the good stuff, just so I can marvel at the fact that time after time, Steve Earle’s best music enables me to forgive and literally forget his worst.