Slicer reviews Steve Earle's latest album.
Slicer hasn't read any reviews of this album yet, so his review won't be influenced or informed by the opinions of others. Whether that proves to be a good or a bad thing, you can judge for yourselves.
Country music has not really had a lot of representation in Slicer's music collection (and that wasn't an oversight), but there have been some exceptions - the country-rock fusion of Lone Justice and Maria McKee being one and, in more recent times, Alison Krauss was another. In 2002 Johnny Cash came crashing in with his American IV: The Man Comes Around. Emmylou has also featured, but she kinda got in by the back door after she guested on Dylan's Desire album. Another one that snuck in was Steve Earle's magnificent Copperhead Road. Maybe it's not even country - Rolling Stone magazine called it 'Power Twang.' A few years ago Slicer had the pleasure of hearing both Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle live on the same bill. However, recently he senses something stirring afresh... The latest wave of interest probably began when he was taken by surprise that Robert Plant teamed up with Krauss for Raising Sand. Then, in 2010, Jakob Dylan delivered his Women and Country album and, again within the last year, a man of the cloth recommended to Slicer that he check out Buddy Miller, and a week or two later there was Buddy Miller appearing on Later With Jools, as part of Robert Plant's Band of Joy.
The title of the latest output from Earle is "I'll never get out of this world alive," (NGOTWA) and it conjures up several thoughts, albeit relating to different musical categories: the biography of Mr Mojo Rising, Jim Morrison ("No-one here gets out alive"), Stiff Little Fingers' Gotta Gettaway and, most of all, The Animals' 1960's hit We gotta get out of this place - covered by a ridiculously wide spectrum of bands from Blue Oyster Cult, to Space, Springsteen, and David Johansen of punk band the New York Dolls.
The notion of escape from present suffering, or dreaming of a better life, pervades both that song and this album. It's not the first time Earle has explored this theme - his first album Guitar Town carries the song Someday, with the aspiration
"Someday I'm finally gonna let go
'Cause I know there's a better way
And I wanna know what's over that rainbow
I'm gonna get out of here someday"
but this time around he seems to be a bit less certain.
The lyric booklet accompanying this latest album states “Ghosts sing sad, western songs: for the whole, broken world.” He's lived life hard at times, and experienced some aspects of a broken world. He's been married seven times, was addicted to heroin, is a recovering alcoholic, and has served jail time for drug and gun offences. While Dr Feelgood were playing with milk, Earle preferred dope with his alcohol.
He explains in the album insert that the songs, written over a 3 year period, are heavily influenced by the death of his father in 2007. He states that it is "no doubt the only art that I could possibly have made as I attempted to glean any lessons from the last days of my father's life that I can apply to whatever's left of mine." The much-covered Animals' hit mentioned above includes the line "See my daddy in bed a-dyin.'"
1. The album opens with "Waitin' On The Sky (to fall)," which refers to young men growing up in a military town, waiting for a draft call. Interesting, given that "We gotta get out of this place" was adopted by the services as a theme song, especially around the Vietnam war. Musically, it's not far away from either the title track on the Copperhead Road album,
or from another military-steeped song referencing the Vietnam war, "Johnny Come Lately," on the same album.
2. The second track on NGOTWA, "Little Emperor," handles the rise and fall of empire, to the heavy accompaniment of banjo and fiddle (!) - Slicer has rarely heard these instruments used in such righteous anger before. Favourite lines
"Hey little Hypocrite, what you gonna say
When you wind up standing naked on that final Judgement Day
How you gonna justify it, who you gonna call
What if it turns out that God don't look like you at all?
You ain't the first rise up, you won't be the last to fall"
are very much in the spirit of With God On Our Side or It's Alright Ma, I'm only bleeding ("Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked")
3. "The Gulf of Mexico" covers the impact (environmental and personal) of an oil spill in that area. It's couched in biographical imagery, about his daddy working shrimpboats on the Gulf to earn his family's living. As far as Slicer knows, Earle's father was in fact an Air Traffic Controller, who often worked on military bases - but clearly that doesn't work so well in a song about an oilslick at sea. Fave line:
"He was sick of mendin' nets and couldn't stand the smell of fish." Haha.
4. "Molly-O" describes the bad lengths men may go to, and then try to justify that they're just doing it to please a woman. A not-so-dandy highwayman's confessional.
5. "God is God" covers a lot of ground lyrically. We've got Presbyterianism meeting Buddhism:
"Somethin' sacred burnin in every bush and tree"
and Slicer is reminded of Larry Norman's The Great American Novel ("and your money says In God We Trust, but it's against the law to pray in school") with the line
"Even my money is tellin me it's God I need to trust"
before Earle gets back to his central theme, of not making God in our image:
"And I believe in God, but God ain't us."
6. "Meet me in the alleyway" instantly reminded Slicer of a song from another genre entirely - Tom Wait's song "Hang on St Christopher," from Franks Wild Years. It was partly the percussion (even tho' the rhythm differs), partly the effect on the vocals - like he's singing down a cardboard megaphone - and a lot to do with the lyrical imagery:
"Thirteen tiger teeth in my talisman,
St John the Conquer and a black cat bone"
You almost expect to hear of a Big Black Mariah coming round the corner...
Slicer couldn't really imagine Earle, so steeped in country music, listening to Waits never mind emulating him. However, he dug out that Waits album to refresh his memory and guess what he found in the liner notes on the rear sleeve?
"Rainville. Good place to dream yourself away from. When the trains thundered past... Frank would count the cars and make a wish just like he did when he was a kid. At least something was getting out of town alive."
The album Franks Wild Years in its entirety describes struggle and desire for escape to a better life.
Coincidence? Maybe. However, even if Earle isn't a Waits fan, T-Bone Burnett most certainly would be well acquainted with his work - and T-Bone produced this Earle album in addition to contributing guitar and vocals on it.
7. "Every Part of Me" is a simple, perhaps ambiguous, song of love lost
8. "Lonely Are the Free" is a contemplative song. It starts with just finger-picked guitar but picks up a marching band snare drum as it progresses. A couple of interesting themes - as regards the Free, there is "nowhere for them to lean" (or lay their head presumably...); not just a song about the lonely, but also about the silent:
"Keeps you hangin' on
Until the silence signalin' the breakin' of the dawn
Is shattered by the sirens singin' sacrificial songs
Silent are the Strong."
Powerful territory. It takes Slicer back to another song of escape, All Along the Watchtower: "There must be some way outa here..."
9. "Heaven or Hell" is a song about the ups and downs of love. Fave line: "I'm rollin' down a blacktop highway, Hole in my chest 'cause my heart's in your hand."
10. "I am a wanderer" covers familiar territory of the wanderer, refugee, labourer, prisoner, and stays on theme of release "Some day I shall be free." It's a bit heavy on the pedal steel for Slicer's liking, but I guess that instrument goes with the territory.
11. "This City" makes use of gentle brass to evoke thoughts of cities being flooded, and washed away. It envisages a city which won't ever wash away.
Aside from Ghosts singing sad, western songs, Slicer found something else a little spooky, given his last post - Grace and Danger. He discovered that "We gotta get out of this place" was used in Michael Moore's film"Fahrenheit 9/11" in reference to the Bin Laden family having to leave the United States in the aftermath of the attack on Manhattan. So it set him thinking a bit more about what people in his own country are trying to escape from.
Yesterday, history was made on this island as Queen Elizabeth II made a State Visit to the Republic of Ireland, on the invitation of Irish President Mary McAleese. It has been 100 years since a British Monarch visited the South of Ireland (King George V, in 1911, when the whole island was still part of the UK). Movingly, she laid a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance in memory of Irishmen who died fighting for independence from the British.
These two stateswomen seem to be leading the way ahead. Maybe women are more natural peacemakers. (Marian Price may be an exception. It is reported today that the licence which released her from prison has just been revoked on the basis that at recent public gathering of dissident republicans she was promoting an illegal organisation, the Real IRA, still committed to violence. Her defence apparently is that she was asked to hold a piece of paper, containing a speech, for the man beside her in a balaclava and combats - because it was a bit blowy - and she was afraid to say no).
Jakob Dylan explained the title of his second solo album thus:
"Everything we care about is an extension of women and country...Those are the beginning and ends of all our efforts, either proactive or reactionary."
That album (another T-Bone Burnett production) carries the song Nothing But the Whole Wide World with the lines
"Now there's no more love loss and no more shame
No more digging holes or graves
Nothing to lose but rivets and chains
Got nothing but the whole wide world to gain."
Let's hope so.
So, alongside Slicer's rhetorical question about whether it's OK to like a particular genre of music, he asks is it OK to cherish country (and, for some, Queen and country)? History, war and peace are complicated and tricky things. If we learn anything from them, it should be obvious that blind loyalty to country and nationality are dangerous things. We can cherish them up to a point, but we need to look beyond them for values which transcend nationalism/patriotism. As one track on Buddy Miller's fabulous 2004 album Universal United House of Prayer goes, There's a higher power.
Whilst some would prefer to see secular humanism as that higher power transcending national identity, Slicer prefers to stick with the position of the earliest folk who carried the humanist label, such as Petrarch, a devout Renaissance Catholic; and Erasmus, a Dutch cleric. Ireland and Britain are trying to escape their troubled past. Let's hope and pray we can learn to 'love our neighbour' and advance a better future.
Another verse from that song on Women and Country suggests we might have to take an active role:
"Said no rich man's worth his weight in dust
Bury him down same as they'll do us
God wants us busy, never giving up
He wants nothing but the whole wide world for us."
There are another couple of interesting angles on Steve Earle. He has been politically active in the US, taking an active stand against both the Death Penalty, and the War in Iraq. In an interview with Meg.ie, he has said that his ancestry is Irish Catholic on his mother's side and Ulster/Scots on his father's side. So, in answer to the question asked at the start of this piece, Slicer thinks it is OK to like country, if it's not to excess, and avoids both oppression and vengeance. And what better ancestry for an artist to listen to in these historic days? Even if the title of the album doesn't quite convey the appropriate optimism for a better future.