I’m not really sure I need to write any kind of introduction to this; I’m pretty sure Steve Earle has been introducing this quite well on his own, and that may or may not be taking away from the music. So I’m going to take the advice from Steve’s own comment, and let this be about the songs. What I will say is that he stated both that he wanted to make a record inspired by the outlaws, and more specifically, Waylon, and that this record would be about dealing with loss. And what we get is basically exactly that–the front half is filled with badass, renegade/outlaw material–or at least what we might think of when referring to that term–and then the back half adds to the validity of it all by taking us on journeys of heartbreak, loneliness, and loss, and in the end, you’re left wondering if this outlaw thing is really all that great after all, and perhaps second-guessing your dream. And in a way, that separates this record from all the others trying to be cool outlaw because it shows all the sides to the story, the glamor along with the pain.
That’s not to say there aren’t painful realities on the first half. IN fact, the opener and title track starts the album by explaining all the things you have to go through if you really want to be an outlaw, albeit in a pretty lighthearted manner. Willie Nelson appears here, which adds to the message and the overall coolness of the song. You also have “Lookin’ For a Woman” and “If Mama Coulda seen Me,” both of which Earle wrote for the show Nashville–the former is a restless heartbreak song where the narrator is trying to find a woman who “Won’t do me like you,” and the latter is about a prisoner who is thankful that his mom died before she had to see him in chains. All of this half, however, is pretty upbeat, and even though the material is dark, some of the glamorous side of being an outlaw still shines forth in the attitude and in the cool blending of country and rock instrumentation. This half comes to a brilliant, angry climax with “Fixin’ To die”–this song is told from Death Row, and I didn’t mean to compare it to Chris Stapleton’s song “Death Row,” but that’s what happened. I said before that Stapleton’s didn’t quite have emotion even though he belted it–I know a lot of people disagreed, but the point I’m making is that whether it came through or not, Stapleton meant that song to be sad. When this opens and Steve Earle bellows, “I’m fixin’ to die, reckon I’m goin’ to hell” and then adds, “I’d be tellin’ you a lie if I told you I was takin’ it well,” for me, that captures all the emotions, from anger to sadness to regret. It’s an intense story and definitely a great way to complete this more rocking front half of the record.
It’s the back half, however, that really makes this album shine and adds an authenticity to these opening songs. It’s one thing to sing about being an outlaw for the sake of it, but when you get to stuff like “This is How it Ends” and “You Broke my Heart” and see there’s a tender side to this story, it really adds something to the whole project. Steve Earle mentioned loss, and it is explored in every form here, from the heartbreak in these two songs, the former of which features Miranda Lambert, to the poverty and self-doubt in the excellent “Walkin’ in LA” to the closer, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” a tribute to Guy Clark. “Walkin’ in LA” features Johnny Bush, the writer of “Whiskey River,” and it’s one of the best songs on this whole thing, despite it not being the most flashy. It’s one of those rare gems where the melody, the lyrics, and the instrumentation all work together flawlessly to form an incredible piece of music. The melody and beautiful acoustic guitar play in “Goodbye Michelangelo” really add to that song as well. It’s a great way to close the album.
As much as I loved this record, I do have a couple criticisms. There are a few songs that felt like filler; “Girl on the Mountain” was sandwiched between “This is How it Ends” and “You Broke my Heart,” and so it stands out as the weakest heartbreak song of the three. At first, I really didn’t enjoy the pairing of Earle and Miranda Lambert, but that’s growing on me, mainly because it’s just such a damn good song. My initial problem was that Lambert is meant to be singing harmony, but sometimes she drowns out Steve. I’m starting to like it better because in doing so, she makes it easier to understand some of the lyrics. ON the front half, “The Firebreak Line” is quite a fun song, but it doesn’t necessarily add much. “News From Colorado,” the only subdued song on the front half, is also a little vague and underdeveloped lyrically. But all these are really minor, nitpicking criticisms, and overall, this record is pretty great.
So, in conclusion, this is a pretty fascinating album. First, you have the angry front half, and then you have the subdued, heartbroken back half, and together they tell a very good story. Steve Earle is a fine songwriter, and the natural grit in his voice just accidentally adds a lot to this album and the stories told. Every collaborator also brought something to the record. I mentioned there were some weaker songs, or perhaps even filler, but at the same time, it’s one of the few albums I’ve played in 2017 without a single bad track. Very nice, solid album. Give it a listen.
P.S. I’m not reviewing the deluxe version, but that also has four pretty awesome covers of songs previously written by Waylon, Willie, and Billy Joe shaver.