Steve Earle: I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive

Steve Earle
I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
(New West)
Rating: ★★★★☆

Grammy voters love Steve Earle, for better or worse. His last three studio albums, “The Revolution Starts … Now,” “Washington Square Serenade” and “Townes” shut out all other contenders in the Best Contemporary Folk/Americana category, which is too bad, because “Townes” didn’t deserve the win and means there’s little chance this stronger album will get a nod. Grammy voters couldn’t possibly give the same award to four albums in a row by the same guy, could they?

Of course, stranger things have happened. But regardless of what might occur next February, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” deserves accolades for its finely honed reflections on the lives of mortals and their relationships to each other, the world and the hereafter.

And let’s get something straight: Steve Earle, in this incarnation, is not a country artist or a rocker, or even, really, a contemporary folkie. So many of these songs hark back to Ireland and Appalachia in melody and/or lyrics, much less instrumentation, they could almost qualify as old-timey. Like John Mellencamp, Earle has embraced his roots so deeply, he’s morphed completely from the persona he had at the start of his career. Which, in a way, is as it should be. If your art can’t evolve as your life does, what’s the point?

Without wasting a word, Earle delivered sharply etched stories like “The Gulf of Mexico,” which could be an old Irish sea chantey, except it deals vividly with an all-too-recent event. “As for me I dreamed of nothin’ any grander than the day/that I stepped out on the drillin’ floor to earn a roughneck’s pay,” he sings. “Then one night I swear I saw the devil crawlin’ from the hole/and he spilled the guts of hell out in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“Molly-O” has the minor-key flavor of a Civil War tune, though it’s about a bandit stealing and killing for his love.

He gets overtly political in “Little Emperor” and philosophical in “God is God,” a contemplative song with guitars that shimmer like an aurora borealis under lines like “Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust/And I believe in God but God ain’t us.”

It’s a standout, along with the love song, “Every Part of Me,” a sweet, simple ballad that says so eloquently what everyone in a love like this hopes to express – if only they could do it as poetically as Earle can. This one is destined to be played at weddings for a long, long time.

Earle duets with his love, Allison, on “Heaven or Hell,” another great tune on an album full of them (named, coincidentally, for the last tune Hank Williams did before he died). With T Bone Burnett’s production and Burnett’s usual cast of top-notch players (including Sara Watkins on fiddle and vocals), Earle’s got another winner. Grammy or not.