Album Review: Terraplane by Steve Earle & the Dukes
Great, Based on 12 Critics
Paste Magazine - 91 Based on rating 9.1/10
On the randy, low-flying Stones-evoking “Go Go Boots Are Back,” Steve Earle scrapes the same guttural rock ‘n’ roll that made “Copperhead Road” so compelling. But as raw and guitar-stung as “Boots” is, Terraplane is a work of many textures. Like The Mountain, Earle’s bluegrass project, this collection grounds in a single genre. Focusing on Texas and Chicago blues, Terraplane is a loose-grooved exhumation of Lightin’ Hopkins, Freddie King and Mance Lipscomb, artists Earle grew up on in San Antonio.
Steve Earle & The DukesTerraplane(New West)Rating: 4. 5 out of 5 stars On “King Of The Blues,” the smoldering closing track of Steve Earle’s new album Terraplane, he sings, “But they ain’t never made no love I couldn’t lose/ I’m the last word in lonesome and the king of the blues. ” It’s a tongue-in-cheek statement, Earle referring to his knack for having his heart broken rather than to his prowess with the music.
Asked why he’s decided to make a blues album at this stage of his life, Steve Earle is likely to offer a universal truth: when you’ve been married seven times to six different women, and have a past punctured by shooting dope and indiscriminate hell-raising, a man’s likely to stand at the crossroads like Robert Johnson and flag him down a terrapin. This may be Earle’s best set of songs since the America redemption disc Jerusalem. In any case, he doesn’t wallow in his blues but mixes the sexually charged You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had and the delicious Dan Hicks-flavoured Western Swing of Baby’s Just As Mean As Me with the stupendous rocker Go Go Boots Are Back, where guitar-slinging accomplice Chris Masterson pushes his boss into one of the most potent vocal performances of his life.
"Hell, everybody's sick of all my f---ing happy songs anyway," Steve Earle declares in the liner notes to his 2015 album Terraplane as he explains why he chose to cut a blues album. If you feel like you somehow missed Earle's Pollyanna period, you're not the only one, but if he was motivated to turn to the blues because of personal troubles -- he was going through his seventh divorce while he wrote and recorded these songs -- it sure sounds like he chose the right kind of musical therapy. Terraplane is the most relaxed and least fussed-over album Earle has made in quite some time, and frankly, he sounds like he's having a ball on these sessions; with rare exceptions, this isn't music that ponders the dark night of the soul, but semi-acoustic roadhouse boogie that rocks with a steady roll and gives Earle a chance to crow like a rooster as he ponders broken hearts, long lonesome highways, battles with the forces of destiny, and the enduring appeal of women in go-go boots.
Steve Earle's 16th studio record, Terraplane, is being widely publicized as his divorce album; while divorce is not a new concept to Earle, making a blues record is. The veteran troubadour has previously put out albums in such diverse genres as bluegrass, hard-driving country-rock and folk, and has occasionally written tunes with a blues flavour. With the skilful assistance of his longtime comrades the Dukes and able production from R.S.
Steve Earle has a gift for articulating the plight of the downtrodden and misunderstood. A knack for stepping inside his fellow man’s boots and feeling the wear on the sole, the caked dirt between the treads, and the permanent awkwardness of the fit. This insight kept listeners riveted throughout 2013’s The Low Highway, as Earle reported back on the lot of small-town lifers, neglected war veterans, and the invisible homeless with both sympathy and a burning curiosity.
Steve Earle has learned to compartmentalize. In the twenty-first century he has released an album of Townes Van Zandt covers, a few collections of agit-Americana, and another inspired by the immigrant sounds of New York City—each one so laser-focused musically and thematically that they sound like concept albums. On one hand, the approach gives each record its own distinctive identity within his catalog.
For his 16th album, country renegade Steve Earle gets in touch with the hardboiled blues of his native Texas — not the sad-slurring, throw-yourself-in-the-bayou blues, but the bar-stomping variety. Songs like the scorching "Go Go Boots Are Back" are stacked with the tight musicianship of his longtime band the Dukes, including- vocalist/fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore, who duets with Earle on the Western-swing tune "Baby's Just as Mean as Me." Earle lets some darkness creep in on the slow-burning "Better Off Alone" (he recently ended his seventh marriage). But Terraplane is less a soul-searcher than a sturdy vehicle, built to chug through hard times.
On Terraplane, Steve Earle and his band the Dukes mine pretty much all the classic themes of the blues—ramblin’, gamblin’, love gone wrong, and a midnight meeting with the Devil at the crossroads, where a soul is exchanged for phenomenal guitar chops. With some exceptions, however, the album—Earle’s 16th and his first all-blues effort—comes off as a generic reworking of these themes rather than a fresh take on them. Keith Richards, who knows a few things about the genre, has observed, “If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.
If you’d been wishing and praying for Steve Earle to cut a blues album, this note’s for you, bub. Let’s face it, though the songwriter’s generally regarded as unimpeachable by kid glove-wearing critics (not to mention his rabid fanbase), he hasn’t sounded truly, madly, deeply inspired since his politically-charged days of the early part of the last decade. As decent as 2009’s Townes collection of Townes Van Zandt covers, 2011’s T Bone Burnett-produced (and accompanied-by-novel-of-same-name) I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive and 2013’s Treme-influenced The Low Highway were, those records were somewhat spotty, each boasting prime candidates for an Earle mixtape but, taken collectively, suggestive of a moderately distracted man.
Everything that would usually carry negative connotations (that could easily be accused of being crass and cheesy) works on Steve Earle's new album. Recently divorced from his sixth wife, Allison Moorer, Earle has made a blues album. Terraplane (not quite Terraplane Blues, like the Robert Johnson song, but named after the car) is a raunchy, electrified, countrified romp through splitsville, replete with a paean to casual sex (The Usual Time) and a song about missing intimacy, which rides a Howlin' Wolf-derived lick (You're The Best Lover That I Ever Had).
Steve Earle & The Dukes Terraplane (New West) Primarily known for his unpolished brand of country rock, Steve Earle remains a Renaissance man. From a passable attempt at bluegrass to penning an imaginative novel featuring Hank Williams' ghost, the Central Texas-reared rambler follows his muse wherever it travels. Terraplane, Earle's blues LP, might separate the everyday followers from the true believers, however.