In the process of creating the most stylistically ambitious record of his career, Steve Earle has also chosen to forego penning dances for his own personal demons in favor of a more observant and plaintive songcraft. It is the record of a man who has spent a good share of his time contemplating the proximity of ghosts: those of figures from his youth in Texas; those of his heroes, particularly Bill Monroe; those he met during his days as a wild-eyed and evil-tempered junkie in hot pursuit of dissolution; and that of his friend and mentor, Townes Van Zandt. He has immersed himself in their stories and attitudes, seeking to sustain equal measures of their ambitions, missteps, and flourishes oftalent, pursuing the distinctiveness of their voices beyond even the bounds of pathos. Where these songs elicit the voices of his ghosts most convincingly, Earle has achieved his greatest success as a narrative songwriter.
One of the products of that immersion is that the music sprawls in a number of directions, each seeking to cut a swath through time to some moment when style and articulation mean everything, and promise more. There is a wonderful tribute to Monroe, the swinging "I Still Carry You Around" (cut with the McCoury brothers), that also bears the influence of the Flatlanders's sessions; and the honky tonk of "The Other Side of Town," which succeeds (in spite of its "faux 78" production - the only misstep in an otherwise brilliantly engineered set) in giving back to the legacies of Williams and Thompson that quality of eviscerating, exhausting sorrow which was the core of both their best work. "Tanneytown," an insidious fugitive tale threaded by a backing vocal from Emmylou Harris, positively seethes with fear - Earle has made the effort to imagine a bewildering kind of violence in small strokes. "Ft. Worth Blues," an elegy for Van Zandt, mints the man's approach to song and metaphor with efficiency (a surprise) and unquestionable taste. Triumphs all, and each unique.
The record is not perfect: for instance, his duet with Siobhan Kennedy works as pure harmony but falters over lyrical cliches, and a song entitled "You Know The Rest" didn't have all that much to tell us in the first place. Still, most ranks alongside Earle's very best work and suggests potential which even "Copperhead Road" did not. His mastery as writer and player has extended well beyond his old signature style.