Hard-Core Troubadour

Steve Earle
I Feel Alright
(E-Squared/Warner Bros.)

Not many people who've been to hell and back are this eager to show slides of their trip. But if Steve Earle's grinning from ear to ear these days, after kicking drugs and getting out of the slammer, the knowledge that he's delivered the best album of his up-and-down career must have something to do with it.

Old fans of rock 'n' country's last great hope can celebrate the self-affirmation of the title cut, but its pointed lyrics are more likely aimed at Earle's detractors--specifically, the Nashville music establishment, who were quick to write off the singer/songwriter years ago for flirting with crack cocaine and heavy-metal power chords.

Music City hypocrites celebrate hell-raising hillbillies once they die and go to heaven, but they'd rather those same maverick spirits not clutter the airwaves with rebel notions while they're still alive and making music. In such a repressed climate, I Feel Alright sounds like a barbed threat. Right at the album's outset, Earle promises his listeners such "precious contraband" as "betrayal and conspiracy, sacrilege and hearsay"--all the nasty, ugly sort of song fodder you don't hear on country radio from the good guys in the black hats.

Ditto for the album's other badass anthem, "The Unrepentant," in which Earle has himself standing at hell's door, shaming the devil for all the dirty work the singer did for him. Not since Elvis Costello promised to "bite the hand that feeds" him has a songwriter gleefully shaken up this much bottled venom and sprayed it at his enemies.

Barring those exceptions, Earle's first new songs after six years in creative exile are concerned with repairing the broken relationships he let rot with neglect. Judging by most of the material on the album, all Earle had to come home to after his stint in the slammer for drug possession, were doors locked from the inside. "Hard-core Troubadour" finds him under a volatile lover's window, begging for the latest in a series of last chances. The lockout vigil continues on "More Than I Can Do." And only the hardest of hearts could turn Earle away after hearing him apologize, with strings and the gospel voices of the Fairfield Four in the background, on "Valentine's Day." Here, he makes forgetting the holiday seem like the most romantic thing a person could do.

On the darker side of Alright, there's the slow and mournful "Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain," which is harrowing enough to make you think he's going to go into withdrawal screams before the song ends. Though less sinister and torturous in tone, the bluesy "Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You" illustrates how quickly self-destruction can evolve into a tag-team event.

Last year's all-acoustic comeback Train a Comin' featured a spot-on cover of the Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You," so the stylish, Fab Fourish melodic turns of "More Than I Can Do" and "You're Still Standing There" (a sensational duet with Lucinda Williams) should come as no surprise. With each progressive recording, Earle has mixed and matched archetypical country sounds with the arena-rock sound of Bruce Springsteen--a tradition he continues here, even utilizing E Street bassist Garry Tallent and quoting snatches of Springsteen's earliest signature song "Rosalita" in "Hard-core Troubadour." Earle proves he's just as adept as the Boss at crafting superb early-rock re-creations like "Poor Boy," a stuttering rockabilly ballad that sounds like a version of "Ruby Baby" where the narrator's all-confidence swagger is stripped away by his empty pockets.

The strictly organic keyboard and guitar sounds on I Feel Alright allow for a purity of tone to match the natural growl of Earle's weathered voice. Here, you'll find none of the synthetic keyboard sounds that marred some of Earle's earlier albums. Nor, for that matter, is there a trace of fiddle or clucky-chicken guitar-pickin' to tell you this was recorded in Music Row, Tennessee. But don't be deterred. I Feel Alright is the most engaging rock and country album to come out in a long, long while.--Serene Dominic

Steve Earle and the Dukes are scheduled to perform on Thursday, April 4, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale. Showtime is 8 p.m.


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