After the relative unity of theme and style of “I Feel Alright” Steve Earle stretched out again on 1997’s “El Corazon”. There’s bluegrass, there’s country tinged hard rock and there’s the stuff in between. The glue that keeps it together is the attitude. The songs are about troubled lives or warnings of possible trouble ahead. There is not a resignation to this, more an acceptance that life is not always how you want it to be but it’s all we’ve got and the good stuff is the best.
To play this music Steve needed more than the rocking Dukes could provide. He recruited Buddy Miller, now a famed producer and accompanist to the stars but then still making his way. This is what it sounded like…
What Miller adds is texture and context. Steve’s songs had been a little constricted by their form. Here’s the rocking outlaw anthem, here’s the tender country ballad. On “El Corazon” the strength and maturity of the lyrics are supported by a wider musical palette. Here Buddy’s Rickenbacker is a perfect foil to “Somewhere Out There”.
If you’re sad or if you’re lonely
If you’re scared, if you’re only
Tired of fightin’
Just hold on I’m
Somewhere out there
I can do no better than use these lyrics. “If You Fall” is another song about the perils of affairs of the heart. The pay-off is “Well just this one time”. This pair, along with “Poison Lovers”, are mid-paced dynamic tunes that lift the spirit. The live clips, with Steve and Buddy have a confidence an an energy and Steve looks like he knows that he has got it going on. This, though, is about the record and there is confidence and energy to spare there too.
“Taneytown” is a dark story of getting away with murder. I keep wanting to use the word “maturity” as if it’s a good thing. I think that “moral ambiguity” is more suited to describe the appeal of the songs on this record. The rocking backing vocals are by Emmylou Harris. If there was a live clip of her doing this song you would have to prove you were over 18 to watch it.
The two acoustic tracks are of note. The opening song “Christmas In Washington” evokes the spirit and memory of American radicalism from Joe Hill to Malcolm X. A sign of songs to come as Steve’s political consciousness became more evident in his lyrics. His farewell to Townes van Zandt, “Fort Worth Blues” closes the LP. It’s beauty and honesty is a fitting tribute for such a friend and mentor. My own taste is for when the music surprises.
Well alright. Steve and the Supersuckers are wearing their leather jackets for this one. Man, how much do I love this story of meeting your young self along the road ? A fresh, modern take on rocking it country style…aaah…”slipped the kid a 20, said Billy give em hell”…a song for grown ups. In season 1 of “The Wire” Omar Little, a walking moral ambiguity, has to leave Baltimore . McNulty asks him why he is running to New York. “Must be something happening there. It’s just too big a town”, he replies. Now I was not convinced that a cold-hearted black killer would be too familiar with the work of Steve Earle. I saw the hand of David Simon or George Pelecanos making a sly in-joke. It made me laugh to hear the song referenced. Steve was to become more involved in Simon’s work in the future.
This is my favourite record by Steve Earle. It is the deal that I had been waiting for since “Guitar Town” in 1986, maybe since that young boy had sung “Mercenary Blues” in “Heartworn Highways”. Steve had to live a lot of life to get to this but he rode his luck, learned some stuff and made the most of the chance he got. It does not always follow that an artist’s work will be improved by such experience. I think that in his case it was.
I like this LP so much that I have to break my rule of only 3 clips at one time. “Here I Am” is another balls-out rocker with an unapologetic description of the “blood on your hands” you can be left with when you live by your heart rather than your head. A song written by an adult for adults. Life affirming music.