Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Steve Earle

  • Guitar Town [MCA, 1986] A-
  • Early Tracks [Epic, 1987] B
  • Copperhead Road [Uni, 1988] B
  • Train a Comin' [Winter Harvest, 1995] A-
  • I Feel Alright [Warner Bros., 1996] ***
  • El Corazón [Warner Bros., 1997] A-
  • Transcendental Blues [E-Squared/Artemis, 2000] *
  • Sidetracks [E-Squared/Artemis, 2002] Choice Cuts
  • Jerusalem [Artemis, 2002] A-
  • The Revolution Starts Now [E-Squared/Artemis, 2004] **
  • Washington Square Serenade [New West, 2007] *
  • Townes [New West, 2009] Dud
  • I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive [New West, 2011] *
  • So You Wannabe an Outlaw [Warner Bros., 2017] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Guitar Town [MCA, 1986]
"I was born in the land of plenty now there ain't enough." "I gotta two pack habit and a motel tan." "I admit I fall in love a lot." In other words, he's like ten thousand footloose rock-and-rollers before him, only he's got new ways to say it. Even makes the road seem like a hardship worthy of Scarecrow, if not Born in the U.S.A.. An American yes, a fool no, and Phil Alvin could do worse than give him a call. A-

Early Tracks [Epic, 1987]
Though they're nowhere near as lame as the artist claims (what do artists know? and why should they tell us about it?), these occasionally surprising studies in neotraditionalist rockabilly do lack that crucial aura of authority--the walking bass sounds more committed than the callow abandon when it should be the other way round. Still, side one won't disillusion, and two strokes shouldn't get lost on the B: the supernal male narcissism of "My Baby Worships Me," and "Devil's Right Hand," a ban-handguns parable you'd swear is as old as the Louvin Brothers. B

Copperhead Road [Uni, 1988]
This time, it isn't only the heavy beat, loud guitars, and wild-ass vocal mannerisms that make it rock--giveaway's the melodrama that rock set pieces substitute for the flat inevitability of the country variety. So my prescription is simple: more Tom T., less Bruce. Meanwhile, just say his vision of history is more convincing than his vision of personal relations. Which these days is another giveaway. B

Train a Comin' [Winter Harvest, 1995]
When the vernacular flows easy or sounds that way, a rare thing, five wives and enough heroin to destroy a saner man are the kind of myth rock and roll fools are always mistaking for reality. And clean though Earle may be, he's not above or beyond embracing that myth--among his latest celebrations of romantic dysfunction is one where he all but dares the object of his obsession to call the cops. Better the laconic narratives and pipeline to the great American tune clusters of this alternative offering, a trad reimmersion with Norman Blake and Peter Rowan picking mandolins and dobros as Earle dredges up songs by his fine young self. "Tom Ames' Prayer" and "Hometown Blues," from '76 and '77, are as undeniable as any Earle this side of "The Devil's Right Hand." And so are "Angel Is the Devil" and "Ben McCulloch," from '92 and '95. A-

I Feel Alright [Warner Bros., 1996]
demands its own Grammy category: Best Use of Outlaw Pathology in a Roots-Rock Setting ("South Nashville Blues," "CCKMP," "More Than I Can Do") ***

El Corazón [Warner Bros., 1997]
Earle writes with the flair and searching eye of a great talker who's also a great reader, and he can sing with anyone--on The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, his dissolute "In the Jailhouse Now" keeps the ball rolling after two of the canniest vocals of Bob Dylan's and Willie Nelson's not exactly thoughtless careers. But now that he's sober he sounds drunker than ever, recalling the blurry, lost-my-dentures drawl of John Prine at his cutest. And since unlike Prine he doesn't take naturally to cute, his back-porch sentimentality can seem as unearned as any folk revivalist's; when he reflects too much, as is his current spiritual wont, he proves that the only thing softer than a tough guy's heart of gold is a populist radical's corazon sangriento. While hoping the born-to-lose sex problems of his rock comeback are behind him, I still find his fast ones more convincing than his slow ones. A-

Transcendental Blues [E-Squared/Artemis, 2000]
If "transcendence is about being still long enough to know when it's time to move on," as he says, he should quit scratching himself ("Over Yonder [Jonathan's Song]," "I Can Wait"). *

Sidetracks [E-Squared/Artemis, 2002]
"Breed," "Ellis Unit One," "Time Has Come Today" Choice Cuts

Jerusalem [Artemis, 2002]
See: Attack of the Chickenshits. A-

The Revolution Starts Now [E-Squared/Artemis, 2004]
The title's poetic license, the artist half a poet at best ("Condi, Condi," "The Gringo's Tale"). **

Washington Square Serenade [New West, 2007]
More songs about mortal struggle and mortal struggle--which can be beautiful, he's decided ("Down Here Below," "City of Immigrants"). *

Townes [New West, 2009] Dud

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive [New West, 2011]
There'll never be too many songs about death or George W. Bush ("Little Emperor," "Waitin' on the Sky") *

So You Wannabe an Outlaw [Warner Bros., 2017]
He's tried the outlaw thing, and on his best album in 15 years sets out to tell the world why it ain't all that. Your buddies on those roughneck temp gigs always head elsewhere. When the news from home is bad, and it will be, there's not a damn thing you can do about it. Hitchhiking is so over a fella could write a keeper about it. And to sum up: "Everybody reckons that they want to be free / Nobody wants to be alone." A guy who's been married seven times is more likely to know nothing about women than everything. But from "Comes to love fallin' is the easy part" to "You can't pretend / The line between a secret and a lie ain't razor thin," he gets a keeper out of that too. While I surely do agree that in love a secret and a lie are the same thing, I hope it will interest him to be told that the secret of not being alone is to let yourself keep falling--for the same one. A-

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