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I guess the difficulty with making an album of your late mate and mentor’s songs is where do you point your morale compass. If you stamp your own style and personality on the songs then isn’t that desecrating his memory, and if you blindly churn out a set of sound-alike copies then isn’t that lazy and worse still doesn't it compromises your artistic integrity, a charge that was levelled against Earle by many when he released an album dedicated to his other North Star, Townes Van Zandt. So in listening to Earle’s very personal tribute to Guy Clarke I’m going to park any bias and not take any form of moral high ground, as I (a) don’t pretend to know the answer to this particular moral dichotomy, and (b) am not familiar enough with Clarke's oeuvre to compare and contrast the originals with Earle’s takes. So this is a review of 16 tracks by Steve Earle and the Dukes that just all happen to have been written and recorded by someone else at some other time.
But before I start, I have a confession, I own most of Earle's albums, there are admittedly a few gaps in my collection, but listening to his recent albums I can't help but think that Earle has passed his sweet spot, and has been trending downhill from the highs of his early 2000s albums (think Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts Now); so has removing the burden of having to write an album offered a chance to recover a muse that of late has been AWOL?
Well in short, no. Quite frankly this album is a bit tiresome, there is nothing of the young and exciting Steve Earle here as he growls his way through these 16 songs sounding ever more like the old guy with the guitar in the corner of the pub that no one is listening to and who's only there to entertain himself while conversations carry on around him. So was the task of recording Clarke's songs just too emotionally overbearing, because in the emotionally flat and raw way Earle presents these songs there is a palpable sense of sadness, even his guitar is [gently] weeping. Or am I reading too much into it and Earle has just lost his mojo. I don't know, and I don't know whether it is the selection of songs, or the Earle treatment but I do know that presenting these 16 songs is a handful too many. Time and time again opportunities to stretch out and excite have been passed, the up tempo "Rita Ballou" feels flat, the choruses of "L.A. Freeway" just don’t hit the heights they could or should have and while some excitement creeps in with "Heartbroke" it is not a great song.
So while recording Guy may have been cathartic for Earle, it does nothing for me and I'm sorry to say it may be the last Steve Earle album that I buy.
An artist marking time, approaching the autumn of his career. A nice tribute to a great songwriter but lacks the raw urgency of his earlier work. I've been on the journey from the beginning with Steve but I fear the time is coming when we say goodbye to each other. One for the completists like me, but not one that'll be played regularly.