Steve Earle

Transcendental Blues
(E-Squared, LLC/Artemis Records)

Mr. Earle had a moment there, back in the '80s, when he could get the country-music establishment to put out his records and convince commercial country radio to play them. But that was a long time ago, dear hearts. Since then, he's engaged in more than enough bad behavior (like heroin addiction, ending in jail time) and made too many impolitic statements (he's told the truth -- always a deal-breaker in this environment) to get any more chances from the Big Boys in the Thousand-Dollar Boots.

Not that he gives a damn. Freed from the opportunity/threat of mainstream success, he's spent the past several years busting genres and speaking from his soul. He's left some casualties in his wake -- his pairing with bluegrass marvel Del McCoury, memorialized by a disc called The Mountain, allegedly came apart because McCoury couldn't take his constant cursing -- but only because he's hell-bent on trailing his muse wherever it leads him. Even if it's a commercial dead end.

Which brings us to Transcendental Blues, another terrific Earle album in a string of them -- although it may take some listeners a while to figure that out. Whereas 1996's I Feel Alright and the next year's El Corazon were blunt and direct no matter what style Earle was choosing to survey at any particular moment, several of the numbers on his latest come at listeners sideways -- most notably the title cut, which rides in on a wave of minor-key psychedelia replete with drones, whines and fuzz-tone guitars. Yet fight through the murk and you'll discover a lyric in which Earle speaks in the plainest possible way about his search for the truth: "In the darkest hour of the longest night/If it was in my power, I'd step into the light." Using production techniques to symbolize this quest is a mighty big risk, practically inviting accusations of pretentiousness. But Earle takes it -- and he wins.

Elsewhere, Earle (who is scheduled to perform at the Ogden Theatre on July 31) demonstrates a similar willingness to measure himself against giants. Witness the Dylan-meets- the-Beatles rock of "Everyone's in Love With You," the Woody Guthrie-like "Steve's Last Ramble," the Springsteeny "When I Fall" (a bit of scab-picking autobiography that teams him with sister Stacy Earle) and the Bill Monroe twang accenting "Until the Day I Die." The last tune, which features onetime Denverite Tim O'Brien on mandolin, ends with Earle wryly noting, "You can always remember, friends, there's no room for vulgarity in bluegrass." Apparently, though, there's no such restriction for Celtic music; he introduces "The Galway Girl," a jolly air shot through with the sounds of the Emerald Isle, with this exhortation: "Let's magnetize this motherfucker."

Such remarks shouldn't be viewed as a sign of disrespect. Far from it: Earle understands that the best way to kill traditional music, which by definition has been more than sturdy enough to stand the test of time, is to handle it like a hollowed-out eggshell. Instead, he treats the various forms at his disposal as if they were as vibrant as ever -- and in his hands, they are. The closer, "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," about a prisoner who was executed a couple of years back, could have turned into a one-dimensional screed. But even though Earle is an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, he respects his art enough to balance the tune's liberalism ("They can't hurt me anymore") with an acknowledgement of the evil the man did ("I suppose I got it comin'/I can't ever pay enough").

The result isn't country music; it's American music. Long may it wave.

 
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