Steve Earle is country music's great polymath - short story writer, playwright, novelist, activist, actor, oh yes, and singer and songwriter of some of the most acutely intelligent and literate songs in contemporary country. He's adept at evoking the human cost of American history, American politics and the lay of the promised land, and I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive - the title referencing Hank Williams's last single - is the best thing he's recorded in a long time.
His 2009 album Townes, a tribute to his former mentor (and tormentor), Townes van Zandt, won him a Grammy, as did 2007's Washington Square Serenade, but to these ears they weren't quite equal to the measure of his finest work, while the Bush-era counter-attack of The Revolution Starts Now stays trapped in its specific time zone (the 2004 US election) and place.
I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive was recorded largely live with musicians including Nickle Creek's Sara Watkins, and produced by a man with the Midas touch in the driver's seat, T-Bone Burnett, and comes with the launch next month of Earle's debut novel of the same name, about one Doc Ebersole, haunted by the ghost of his friend and former patient, Hank Williams. The album is also about death. "The songs are all, as far as I can tell, about mortality in one way or the other," Earle has said, "Death as a mystery rather than a punctuation mark, or at least, a comma rather than a period."
The cover looks like a cross between a page from the Voynich manuscript and a Mexican folk painting, and the music within has a rich, dark grain, the opening, echoey stomp of Waitin' On the Sky reminding you of the spooked, dark rockabilly of his son Justin Townes Earle's acclaimed 2010 album, Hudson River Blues. No point in wondering if the strength of that release forced the old man to up his game, because the first songs written for the album, including I am a Wanderer, date back to 2008 and Joan Baez's album sessions for The Day After Tomorrow. The haunting Gulf of Mexico, a human-scale depiction of the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the lyrical Molly-O, feature superb bluegrass settings that dance like a posse of skeletons around the voice - and Earle is in great voice, his rich, deep drawl pulling back and forth like a heavy tide.
Lonely are the Free stands out with its lone voice and guitar-picking before Burnett weaves in just the right delicate measure of band support to give this meditation on life and maturity the feel of stark, long-distance blues. Earle's distorted megaphone vocal and the music's message-sending drum pulses make it a classic cut. Heaven or Hell features Earle's wife (and a great songwriter to boot), Alison Moorer, while the closing This City, the theme from HBO's New Orleans-set drama series, Treme - in which Earle plays Harvey, the street musician - lets the album bow out with horn arrangements from Allen Toussaint so tightly sprung they could turn a funeral march into a victory parade.