After 25 years of running and rebelling, Steve Earle’s 14th album, I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, renders a sobering conclusion: “Doesn’t matter / ’cause there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna leave this town.”
Fans of HBO’s Treme will recognize these lyrics as those of street musician Harley Watt, the character portrayed by Earle in the New Orleans-themed series. The Grammy- and Emmy-nominated song, “This City,” with horns arranged by Allen Toussaint, seals Earle’s latest saga. Its final lyric, “This city won’t wash away / this city won’t ever drown,” carries with it a devout sense of resiliency that resonates just as prophetically throughout the city of New Orleans as it does through the album and Earle’s career.
The equally moving “God Is God” and “I Am a Wanderer” should also be familiar to fans—Americana enthusiasts, particularly—who may recognize them from Joan Baez’s Day After Tomorrow, produced by Earle in 2008. According to the liner notes, the songs on the album are the prolific songwriter’s most personal effort to date. They’re also his most refined, which isn’t to say the stubborn outlaw’s swagger and songwriting aren’t as strident as ever. Have a listen to the scathing, politically-charged “Little Emperor” or the craggy murder ballad “Molly-O” for a taste of Earle’s pointed social commentary.
Credit producer T Bone Burnett, whose recent work has revived the careers of John Mellencamp, Gregg Allman, and Robert Plant, for bringing out the rambling rockabilly of Earle’s early days and blending it into the rough-hewn Americana of his latter years. The most poignant, “The Gulf of Mexico,” tells the story of three generations of men raised on its shores as the song transforms from an a cappella sea shanty into a Cajun square dance. Elsewhere, the heavy-handed lyrics and production of “Meet Me in the Alleyway,” make it easy to overlook the unadorned eloquence of the heartfelt ballad “Every Part of Me.” What shouldn’t be overlooked is “Heaven or Hell,” a passionate duet with wife Allison Moorer, which pairs Earle’s sandy twang alongside her captivating cries and unearths I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’s most enduring sentiment.