Out There

No he don't
I Feel Alright
Steve Earle
Warner Bros. Records

A country boy who busted into the honky-tonk swinging an electric guitar like a longhair and spitting out his junkie lyrics like a Springsteen who never even heard of the promised land, Steve Earle fucked himself up but good. The Houston native could have--should have--been the greatest of the hard-core Texas troubadours, the participant to Guy Clark's observer and the survivor to Townes Van Zandt's victim; but instead Earle earned his legend not through his music but the escapades of the jailed crack-addict, the multiple divorcee, and the Wunderkind who gave up the fight before he even entered the ring. By the time of 1988's Copperhead Road, Earle broke more promises than a politician.

He rebounded with dirt-road elegance on last year's Train A Comin', his version of Nebraska told from the vantage point of a Nashville skyline and a Texas jail cell, but I Feel Alright is the record Earle always had in him, even if he had to sweat it out like a drunk man in detox. It's a fiery record, the first time he's managed to capture the rock-and-country beast that eluded him for so long; the music exists in that tenuous spot Joe Ely used to rent out and Springsteen used to drive by on his way out of New Jersey, the place where blues meets metal beats country and where men read their stories off the back of whiskey-bottle labels.

I Feel Alright contrives beauty even when it tells horror stories about those demons in a needle, and it's harrowing even when string sections and the sweet harmonies of Lucinda Williams and Fairfield Four wash away the grime. Earle comes off as country music's Lazarus Man standing at the confessional but unwilling to beg forgiveness: "Hey, man, who do you think will take the blame?/Aw, someone's got to do it," he snarls over an agonizing guitar riff and an aching beat. "When it comes to the crossroads/Aw, man, it's time to explode."

He uses old pain to create unspoiled images, like when he insists "cocaine cannot kill my pain" because it's "like a freight train in my vein"; where Lou Reed longed for heroin pulsing through his greedy body, turning the horrific into the romantic, Earle casts himself as helpless prisoner. Clearly, Earle doesn't feel all right, not by the longest shot. He's a bitter and defiant man, spitting at those who wrote him off as Nashville roadkill ("Some of you would live through me/Lock me up and throw away the key/Or just find a place to hide away/Hope that I'll go away--Huh!") and shaking his fists at the temptations around every corner ("I won't be satisfied till they lock me up again"). This is what they mean by a living hell, and you can almost taste the flames.

--Robert Wilonsky


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