If “Train A Comin’ ” was a good old boy getting straight and dipping more than a toe into the water then “I Feel Alright” is a headlong dive back into the pool. There are 12 new songs and from the opening track Steve announced that he was back and ready for whatever Life threw at him.
Steve was back with the Dukes and rocking it up again. This is the opener to the record and to the TV special “To Hell and Back”, filmed at a Tennessee correctional facility. Live at Folsom Prison it is not but it’s good to see him on such assertive and confident form.
It’s always good to see anyone break an addiction but, in some cases, it was the drugs or the booze or the sex which showed that individual’s fallibility and made them of interest. There is little worse than a “celebrity” ex-junkie who has only his, or her, past screw-ups by which to measure his, or her, life. I have seen “Some Kind Of Monster” and that James What’s His Name off of Metallica, someone get that man a drink and a line. He is dull, scared and scary. There are songs of loss and penitence on “I Feel Alright” but there is a determination and a self-awareness to leave the past and get on with the future. Steve Earle was 40 years old and when you reach that age an appreciation of the fact that things are more complicated than you had thought when you were 20 can be of assistance in your life and your work. This LP is the strongest, most consistent material he had recorded.
“CCKMP”, cocaine cannot kill my pain, is the most direct of these songs. A dark, beautiful blues, there are no contemporary clips of Steve performing this song when he was promoting the album. I don’t know why. Maybe Steve needed to put a bit of distance between himself and such an honest song. Maybe he did not want to be that guy so in your face about his former addictions or it just did not fit the rocking set he and the Dukes were playing. Whatever, any look back at this record without the inclusion of this song would be guilty of avoidance.
“To Hell and Back” includes a rocking version of “The Unrepentant” from the LP. “You’re Still Standing There” is shared with Lucinda Williams and is one of those near-duets that I like so much. I’ve chosen “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” because Steve and the Dukes are rocking and because, even though we can’t see his eyes, he looks happy to be back on a stage with his band and playing to a captive audience (sorry). It’s what he does and what he almost lost. In 1996 my friends and I were listening to Steve Earle again and we were happy about that too.