Whhaaaaaaat? Out of nowhere Early Steve puts it all together, recording an album with no real weak spots that’s endlessly fun and interesting to play again, and again, and again.
This album has two kinds of songs on it in terms of quality: songs that I frequently have the urge to listen to in related (listening to other Steve Earle albums or reading about Nashville flooding terribly) and unrelated (watching Jersey Shore or drinking cheap beer in sketchy Mexican bars) situations. These songs, are the title track, “Hard Core Troubadour”, “Hurtin’ Me Hurtin You”, “Now She’s Gone”, and “Billy and Bonnie”. The other kind (hee!) are the songs that I mostly forget about, but when I listen I’m surprised at how enjoyable they are. These songs are the rest of the album.
So what makes everything so good? First are the big things. This is definitely a country, but it incorporates rock tempos and electric guitars so well that it sounds miles away from the shit-country populating the American Midwest. “I Feel Alright” is a should-be-hit single declaration of purpose with a catchy riff and memorable melody, both heartwarming and kinda bad-ass. It’s half swagger and half recovering addict and it’s probably the best song Steve’s done. The sappy love song business, always a problem for Steve, is here channelled entirely the apology song “Valentine’s Day” where it can be proud and sad and undiluted and therefore kinda respectable, and the happy closing duet “You’re Still Standing There” doesn’t sound overly serious at all! Then there’s the brevity – unlike most other songs by musicians forever, every song here is parsimonious and ends exactly when its had its say, and I even wish many of them would go on unnecessarily, but instead I have to play them again. Rare to hear.
The little things are just as key, though. That the album is the home of a one-album love affair with the harmonica, one of my favourite instruments, and it carries a lot of the musical joy. The line “wherefore art thou Romeo, you son of a bitch?” on “Hard Core Troubadour”, not to mention the existence of the wonderful phrase “hard core troubadour” itself. The mid-line moments on “Now She’s Gone”, the slight guitar trill every few seconds on “I Feel Alright”, the way that there’s genuine pathos in a song with “hurtin’” in its title twice, the wavering guitars on the hilarious-if-you’ve-known-the-people-I-have “Billy and Bonnie” and “The Unrepentant”, the twangy country guitar tones on “Hard Core Troubadour” and “Hurtin’ You Hurtin’ Me”, the sudden baldfaced self-expression of “Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain”. Just to name a few things.
The preferred entry point to Steve, in case you were wondering. This’ll nicely set the bar far too high and cause you the most disappointment possible. But it’ll also guarantee you the most personal time with this album, so it’s worth it.
10 / 10