Who knew Steve Earle would turn out to be such a renaissance man? His 14th album is out next week, but on Sunday night he returns to TV as an actor in the HBO series "Treme" and on May 12 he publishes his first novel, which utilizes the same Hank Williams song title as the album. Amid these other pursuits, Earle's music is starting to look like just another piece of the marketing plan.
"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" certainly sounds like a companion piece, as if we just had the missing piece -- a text, a visual, a play -- the experience would be complete.
As music only, however, the album sounds alarmingly obligatory. Then again, so did most of his Bush-administration output; the albums "Jerusalem" and "The Revolution Begins ... Now!" stepped up to fill a leftist need (wanted: protest singers!) but likely will survive only as quaint timepieces. This album doesn't stand much of a better chance for longevity, either, not with this lack of energy and ideas.
Even Earle's typical lyrical chutzpah is AWOL. A love song, for instance, "Every Part of Me," could earn him extra royalties as a Hallmark card. "Heaven or Hell," a road-song duet with wife Allison Moorer, builds to a clichéd chorus: "I love you, baby, but I just can't tell / this kinda love comes from heaven or hell." Elsewhere, the album is grim, with Earle bullhorning his vocals through "Meet Me in the Alleyway" (an indictment of, I think, witch doctors?) and aping Jackson Browne in the requisite oil-spill lament, "The Gulf of Mexico." A crack band, including Nickel Creek fiddle player Sara Watkins and production from the acclaimed T Bone Burnett, winds up muddy in most cases where they should be gritty. It's all further evidence in the looming case of Earle's massive overrating.
Buy instead: Chicago's own Bloodshot Records just released a rollicking live album, "No One Got Hurt: Bloodshot's 15th Anniversary @ The Hideout Block Party," documenting the Sept. 12, 2009, concert featuring the Waco Brothers, Alejandro Escovedo, the Deadstring Brothers, the Sanctified Grumblers, Bobby Bare Jr. and more.