Steve Earle & the Dukes: Terraplane

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Steve Earle & The Dukes
Terraplane
(New West)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

On “King Of The Blues,” the smoldering closing track of Steve Earle’s new album Terraplane, he sings, “But they ain’t never made no love I couldn’t lose/ I’m the last word in lonesome and the king of the blues.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek statement, Earle referring to his knack for having his heart broken rather than to his prowess with the music. But the evidence on the album makes a good for case for taking the boast at face value.

The easy trap into which the album could have fallen is a lack of musical diversity; as invigorating as a straightforward 12-bar blues can be, it gets a bit old to hear it played without much variance over the course of 10 songs or so. Earle keeps switching the musical settings up from acoustic to electric, sometimes aping the masters (“The Usual Time” and “Acquainted With The Wind,” which both sound like they could have been written and recorded in the first half of the 20th century) and sometimes following the through line to their descendants (the Stones’ riffage and psychedelic break on “Go Go Boots Are Back” or the Canned Heat/ZZ Top grind of the “The Tennessee Kid,” a searing reimagining of the Crossroads myth rendered in iambic pentameter.) It helps that he has such a nimble band in the Dukes, with guitarist Chris Masterson really shining throughout.

Earle throws in a charming duet with Eleanor Whitmore on “Baby’s Just As Mean As Me” and the light acoustic romp “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” for diversity, but most of these songs do what the blues do best: pick at the wounds inflicted by lost love. The showstopper in that regard is undoubtedly “Better Off Alone,” a slow-grinder where a man chooses a lifetime of solitude over a deteriorating romance. Earle is far too musically adventurous to linger too long in any one genre, and kudos to him for that, but Terraplane is such a standout that we can only hope he makes his way back around to the blues relatively soon.