Review Summary: “That's the way it is with good [songs], you’re sure you’ve heard them before.” Bad Blake from the movie Crazy Heart.
At first you just notice the voice. A world weary yet powerful voice. The voice that launched a thousand trips to the store for smokes. Professional frontmen have abused their vocals in vain for years to get a rasp like this. Just short of 60, Steve Earle’s voice stands more naked than ever but the thick timbre only gets stronger with time.
The best endorsement I can give this album is that while it is in the western genre it is not of the western genre. These songs cover a lot of ground getting where they need to go and never once get caught up trying to fit in with boilerplate tropes or resorting to common conventions for easy fanfare. How Jeff Bridges’s character described country music would seem insulting to a lot of other genres but here it applies. The music, while well done, feels familiar or even comfortable. Earle has a fluid and dynamic backing band but the album’s real secret weapon is that it is lyrically flawless.
When you listen to this album what you’re really hearing are postcards from a man who truly has been everywhere. 15 albums into his career all the roads have been traveled and songs have been sung. This time around there’s a little extra New Orleans flavor thrown in but a lot of these tracks linger on not just locations but the mental health of the people who are found there. Whether sung from the point of view of strangers or as himself, Earle does revealing takes on certain segments of the American experience. Countering the usually bleak nature of life with occasional songs of tenderness and optimism works to keep the listener invested and the album’s mojo flowing.
Consider the song Invisible. One of the of the record’s two “Money Songs” (songs that make you give a cd another listen) along with the title track. Invisible is mostly an acoustic track with moody double tracked vocals during the chorus but the lyrics from the point of view of a homeless person are the real power. The consideration of how this mentally challenged man feels ignored or ‘invisible’ to his fellow humans is a powerful memorandum.
The album’s closing track is a slowly building letter from Earle to his infant. As an elderly father he faces the real fear of not being around to see his son grow up. The song lays that regret out for his child to see but it, and the album, ends with, “there'll come a day when you're all alone/ And you'll have to stand up on your own/ And when it's muscle and blood and bone/