It should come as no surprise that nearly 30 years into his distinguished recording career, Steve Earle has made a blues record. With the new album Terraplane, the Americana songwriter supreme and his longtime band (Kelly Looney, Will Rigby, Chris Masterson, and Eleanor Whitmore) have delivered a compact, 37-minute bluesy growler that drags us through the dirt and enlightens us at the same time.
All written by Earle, these 11 songs cook up into a gumbo of styles recalling Muddy Waters, Texas and Chicago blues, country/folk blues, Keith Richards (in the tracks “The Go Go Boots Are Back” and “Better Off Alone”), and Earle’s own low-down rumble. Terraplane – the album’s name harks back to Robert Johnson – isn’t just the solid set I would have expected. It’s the most satisfying blues release I’ve heard in at least a year, beginning with the one-chord minimalism of “Baby Baby Baby (Baby),” whose very title sets a tongue-in-cheek tone that lingers to lighten the heavier tunes.
The songs are loaded with references to traditions and tropes of the blues and the musical forms that evolved out of them. “The Tennessee Kid” is a four-minute tour de force of devilish darkness that evokes the legend of Robert Johnson’s supposed deal with the Devil and links up with the whole line of songs about Satan, from “Sympathy for the Devil” to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Conversation with the Devil.” The swinging country-blues of “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” and the humorous, John Prine-esque “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me” roguishly celebrate freedom and love, while the rough-edged ballad “Better Off Alone” looks at the sad side of those themes, and the narrator of “The Usual Time” slinks around them, the proverbial back-door man.
Earle’s mandolin enlivens the boppy “Acquainted with the Wind,” whose “rambling” narrator sings: “Everybody stands aside/As I rumble down the road”. The narrator of “Go Go Boots Are Back” declares, “I never needed any kind of artificial light.” Both are apt metaphors for a sound that feels as authentic as sunshine on a dusty road.
Earle and the band delve into many corners of the blues and find gold in every one. As the best blues musicians often do, they use masterful playing to create an illusion of front-porch sloppiness. The final track, King of the Blues, shuffles to its conclusion with its turnaround chords muddied up by the bass’s stubborn refusal to stick to the roots, a subtle touch that sums up Terraplane‘s ethos: Do it wrong just right.
Terraplane comes out February 17 and will be available in several formats: CD, MP3 download, 180-gram vinyl, and a deluxe CD/DVD set with additional live acoustic tracks and a behind-the-scenes video.