The Album Collection #12: 2013, Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses), The Low Highway

by Jackie_South on June 23, 2013

Steve Earle - The Low HighwayAfter a bit of a sabbatical, I’m back to full writing duties here at All That’s Left. So, it’s my turn up to do our weekly album review.

It wasn’t a difficult pick: as a dyed-in-the-wool Steve Earle fan, this has been my favourite album of the year to date. Fantastic music, great social commentary.

Whilst his previous album, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, was a meditation on mortality, this is a more eclectic album in both subject matter and style.  The country and rock is there, but so is Cajun, New Orleans boogie-woogie piano and Bluegrass.

There are two interweaving themes that come through the lyrics. The first of these is a reflection on the economic misery of modern America.

Take, for example, the opening title track:
“Saw empty houses on dead end streets
People linin’ up for somethin’ to eat
And the ghost of America watchin’ me
Through the broken windows of the factories
Naked bones of a better day
As I rolled on down the low highway”

This is Earle channeling Woody Guthrie, for the Twenty First century’s own Great Depression.  Calico County is a rock out track about meth labs, Burnin’ It Down a country number attacking dead-end low-paid jobs, with the chorus “I’m thinkin’ about burnin’ the Walmart down“.

After this trio, the next four tracks focus on the second theme, New Orleans (some are songs he wrote for David Simon’s Treme, in which he also starred) and Hurricane Katrina.  Cajun accordions accompany his showing the finger to hurricanes in That All You Got?  (I wish I’d had this last year when I was there). Love’s Gonna Blow My Way could almost be Forties swing, an optimistic ditty looking forward to better times with double bass, violin and brushed drums. It contrasts with the next track: After Mardi Gras is a country ballad with banjo and fiddle about holding off melancholy until after the city’s carnival is over.  Boogie-woogie Pocket Full of Rain sees Earle take to the piano for the first time for a song about the temptations of the Big Easy, emptiness and, yep, the rain again.

That brings us back to the nation’s economic woes, with one of the stand out tracks, Invisible, about homelessness (returning to the subject matter of 1988′s Back to the Wall):
“Everywhere I go
People pass me by
They never know ’cause I’m
Invisible” 

(Is it just me, or is there a hint of unplugged Cobain in his singing the chorus before the steel guitar kicks in?)

Then there’s the Bluegrass of Warren Hellman’s Banjo, a song that sounds as if it must have come from the Appalachians back in the mists of time.  Next up is the Guthrie-ish folk of Down The Road Pt II, which also channels both Dylan and Earle’s own Copperhead Road era country rock.

There’s some of the Eighties Earle in 21st Century Blues too, with a nice line of cynicism as he rails against the failure of the American Dream:
“Here I am in the 21st century
Have to say it ain’t as cool as I hoped it’d be
No man on the Moon, nobody on Mars
Where the hell is my flyin’ car?
And nothin’ even like a teletransporter so far”

before ending up by optimistically praising the Occupy movement (“Out in the streets downtown in the park/ Maybe the future’s just waitin’ on you and me”).

The final track, Remember Me, sits out side this Recession-N’Awlins-Recession sandwich.  I have to confess, I didn’t get it to begin with: it seemed like a slow, slightly mawkish, track that did not relate to the rest of the album.

But that changed after George East and I went to see Earle last month.  This was one of those great gigs where the performance helps interpret the album: Earle described how as a 58 year old man with a three-year old son, he knew he wasn’t going to be around for much of his son’s adult life.  Worse still, young John Henry has recently been diagnosed as being autistic.

Knowing this turns what otherwise might seem a slight track into an almost heartbreakingly tender one, of a dad desperately hoping that his son will hold some memory of him after he has gone.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

George_East June 24, 2013 at 11:16 am

This is a great album. It is interesting though how sometimes hearing the songs from an album played live makes all the difference. I had thought when I first listened to the album that it was a little too disparate in styles to really cohere. Having heard it live it now sounds much more like a rounded coherent work. I had a similar experience with John Grant’s Queen of Denmark.

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