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Steve Earle has never been one to pull his punches. In both his spectacularly troubled personal life and his rough and tumble songs, subtlety has never been the name of the game. Nothing’s changed this time around, and the release of I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive with songs like “Little Emperor” — Earle’s final kiss-off to the Bush era — and the Woody Guthrie-inspired “Gulf of Mexico” show that recent successes evidenced by Grammy and Emmy awards, a celebrated acting career and a soon-to-be-released novel have done nothing to dull his wicked edge. For longtime fans, that can only be a good thing.
I’ll Never Get Out Of this World Alive is Steve Earle’s 14th studio album and his first collection of original material to be released since Washington Square Serenade won the Grammy in 2008 for Best Folk/Americana Album. Townes, Earle’s tribute to his mentor, the legendary songwriter Townes Van Zandt, went on to win a Grammy the following year in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to infer that the singer felt no small amount of pressure when he went into the studio to record a follow-up.
For the most part, the album is an unqualified success, and the songs seem carefully chosen to play to all of Earle’s strengths. As if to ensure a hit, Earle brought in T Bone Burnett to ride shotgun on these songs, but for the most part the celebrated producer conducts with a light hand, and his trademark spacious, hollow-bodied sound is scrupulously downplayed. “Waiting for the Sky to Fall,” the ’50s-sounding rockabilly track that opens the album, is an exception, but in this case, the expansive treatment Burnett opts for perfectly complements Earle’s rearview meditations about avoiding the draft as a teenager growing up in a military town. –PM