I once told a friend that I didn’t like the newest record from her favorite musician because he had opted to sing more about politics than love. I can’t remember my exact words, but it was something to the effect of it being very hard to write a good love (or loss) song, requiring more skill and nuance than it took to churn out self-righteous social commentary.
It’s a silly generalization, but one that probably explains why I enjoy Steve Earle’s I Feel Alright so much and dislike (a bit more each time) most of the releases that followed it (not counting The Mountain, Earle’s wonderful bluegrass record made with The Del McCoury Band). It’s just me, but the Earle who would yearn for the return of Emma Goldman on El Corazón and put “Conspiracy Theory” on Jerusalem is vastly less interesting than the one who would confess (with the vocal support of The Fairfield Four) that “There’s so much I want to say / But all the words just slip away / The way you love me every day / Is Valentine’s Day.”
Steve Earle, I Feel Alright
I didn’t know anything about Steve Earle when I bought this mid-Nineties classic (on which “Valentine’s Day” is one of many highlights), so I’m sure I thought the title oddly blasé, little realizing that feeling “alright” was a pretty remarkable status update given what had happened in Earle’s life in the preceding few years. A capsule review:
1990 By all accounts (his included) Earle’s addictions to heroin and cocaine were leading him to spiral out of control as he made The Hard Way, which was to be his last album for five years, as his record label dropped him and Earle essentially stopped performing and recording
1992 Earle’s fifth marriage ended and he was arrested for failing to report for jury duty
1993 Earle remarried his second wife, but failed to appear for a court hearing on charges of narcotics possession
1994 Sentenced to nearly a year in prison, Earle spent four weeks in a detox program and then four and a half months in jail before being released
Then, miraculously, a sober Earle partnered with musicians Peter Rowan and Norman Blake to record his best album to date: the acoustic Train a Comin’, which included everything from covers of The Beatles (“I’m Looking Through You”) and Earle mentor Townes Van Zandt (“Tecumseh Valley”) to Earle’s own “Mercenary Song” (“We’ll fight for no country / but we’ll die for good pay”) and the tear-jerking “Goodbye.” Earle biographer David McGee sums up its genius: “The drug-fueled fury of Copperhead Road and The Hard Way has given way to craft, feeling, and folk-flavored storytelling. This is the sound of an artist marshalling all his gifts at the most fundamental level—language, structure, style, point of view in a minimalist environment—and finding his voice again, his mojo” (Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet, pp. 185-86).
Of course, even a clean and sober Steve Earle was a fiery Steve Earle. (According to McGee, when Earle found out that his record company resequenced the album album without his consent, his “response was to blast his copy to pieces with a pistol.”) And, refreshing as Train was, it must have been exhilarating for his fans when, barely a year later, Earle released another album that employed the same “craft, feeling” of Train but added electric guitars and drums back to the mix.
It certainly was for me, a newcomer to the fan club. Those guitars don’t really kick in until later in the song, but under a shimmering acoustic sound that became the trademark of Earle and his co-producer, Ray Kennedy, the singer-songwriter made clear that I Feel Alright would be his true comeback album and that I would be buying his work for at least a few years:
I was born my papa’s son
A wanderin’ eye and a smokin’ gun
Now some of you would live through me
Lock me up and throw away the key
Or just find a place to hide away
Hope that I’ll just go away
I feel alright—I feel alright tonight
Thank God. While there’s plenty of brutal honesty to go around the album’s twelve tracks (“Here I am, out in the rain / I know I can’t ever wash out the pain”; “I took my pistol and a hundred dollar bill / I had everything I needed to get me killed”; the mantra-like drug blues of “CCKMP” — “cocaine cannot kill my pain”), there’s an exuberance to I Feel Alright that’s infectious. (So are many of the melodies. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that someone who would cover Paul McCartney is a gifted tunesmith…) And, as confessional as it is in moments, it’s fitting that I Feel Alright has a song called “The Unrepentant,” because Earle doesn’t spend much time apologizing for his behavior. He’d rather tell the truth and trust his audience to stick with him. Back to the first track, which ends:
I got everything you want or need
Your darkest fear, your fondest dream
I ask you questions, tell you lies
Criticize and sympathize
Be careful what you wish for friend
Because I’ve been to hell and now I’m back again
While Earle tells a couple of stories (“Billy and Bonnie”; “Now She’s Gone”) and my favorite track is the ode to “Hard-Core Troubadour” Bruce Springsteen (featuring one of Earle’s most clever, fluid lyrics: e.g., “Girl, better figure out which is which / Wherefore art thou, Romeo, you son of a bitch / You’d just as soon fight as switch / Now wouldn’t you?”), he spends most of his time looking in the mirror — and yearning to see a woman next to him.
This is an album about love (for self, and others), but it’s perhaps the least romantic set of songs ever written. Given his own history, it’s hard not to read love as a kind of addiction in songs like “More Than I Can Do”: “I’m trying hard to let you go / But it’s more than I can do / And every day or two / I wind up right back where I started.” One of the strongest tracks is the album-closing duet with Lucinda Williams, which starts with Earle confessing “I’ve been down a thousand trails / I’ve never walked before / I found out that without fail / They lead me to your door.” Williams is perhaps the best imaginable partner for this kind of duet — perfectly suited to drawl the response, “I admit that there are nights / When I sit up and cry / But sometimes I turn out the lights / and pray you’ll pass me by.”
And — to belatedly return to my point — this is also perhaps Earle’s least political album. (Well, beyond the politics of relationships…) On his other records, a song called “South Nashville Blues” might well have been a commentary on poverty and the 99%, and “CCKMP” would include at least one verse waging war on the War on Drugs. While Earle writes such material better than most other artists, I have to admit to finding succeeding albums less and less enchanting as they drifted further from the personal songwriting of Feel Alright and Train a Comin’ and became more State of the Union than State of the Earle (as one critic once wrote of El Corazón, which features one of Earle’s best social commentaries: the lynching tale “Taneytown“).
Release Date: 1996
Three Favorite Tracks: “Hard-Core Troubador”; “You’re Still Standin’ There”; “Feel Alright”
Other Nominees: Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne and Identity Crisis; The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You; Bright Eyes, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning; The White Stripes, Icky Thump; Merle Haggard, If I Could Only Fly; Elvis Costello, Imperial Bedroom; Nirvana, In Utero; Stevie Wonder, Innervisions; Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Into the Great Wide Open; The Strokes, Is This It?