Steve Earle and the Dukes and Duchesses, ‘The Low Highway’ – Album Review
Steve Earle is the punk poet laureate of alt-country music.
Like the Merles and Johnnys of the past, he’s been blessed with a dark wit and chip-on-the-shoulder muse -- his pen, vocal cords, guitar strokes, all vehicles of war. He wants his audience to feel changed after listening to his music. And sometimes, that involves a swift smack upside the head.
And we, the audience, are blessed to have a guy like this in our lives, simple as that. His presence in the American musical canon (est. 1986) has made the music world better. His latest record, ‘The Low Highway,’ is just one more example of how good Steve Earle gets when stuff goes wrong (see ‘The Revolution Starts...Now’ or ‘Jerusalem’).
Now, sure, Earle, in both vocal delivery and ethos, leans heavily on the Bruce Springsteen Tradition, but that’s nothing new. Thankfully, as Earle fans know, he’s never doing it ironically -- like seemingly a billion indie bands have in the last 10 years. We know Springsteen is Springsteen, Earle is Earle.
On ‘Highway,’ Earle’s hung up on the Big D's: displacement, destruction, decay, drugs, depression. Everything messed up about America rears its ugly head -- from the recession (on the title track) to hurricanes (‘That All You Got’) and the unnatural disaster that is meth (‘Calico County’). He even stages his own black comedic play, starring a suicidal guy in his pickup truck packed full of flammables, contemplating arson on the grandest, gaudiest scale: "Burning [a] Walmart down."
And like most Earle albums, this one gives you a little bit of everything, stylistically. He crisscrosses genres like an old lady sewing up a patchwork quilt. Sparse acoustic country (‘The Low Highway’), grungy country rock (‘Calico County’), Zydeco (‘That All You Got’), back-parlour honky tonk (‘Pocket Full of Rain’) and frost-bitten blues (‘Warren Hellman’s Banjo’) all make an appearance. The threads that hold it all together? Gumption. Experience. Chops.
The centerpiece, in our humble opinion, is ‘Invisible,’ which is Earle at his absolute finest. With this acoustic number, it’s almost as though Earle has taken every down-on-his-luck character on the album and molded them into one, in a single song.
Now that’s punk.