Steve Earle – The Hard Way

This album is WAY better if you view it as the death rattle of a desperate and drowning man, struggling as Early was with addictions to some great drugs, but it’s not really any business of mine. I’m just a listener here, and a fake consumer, but still a fan. But trust me, listen with your ears attuned to desperation and howling and it’ll all seem better.

There are certainly things to dislike here: the drums sound way too poppy, like they left their feet in the 80s. A lot of the songs sound bloated and unfinished, or overly produced, exactly like you’d think an album from a declining man would be. The lack of standout tracks is a bit of an issue. The way a few songs sound like elevated jams, and the way “Regular Guy” repeats the same three lines over and over, for almost half of its total length.

But there’s far more to love. For starters, Early’s voice sounds ragged and experienced, like a man far older than he is. For another, the hooks are there in nearly every song, even the throwaways. For another, the songwriter persona on display here is a genuinely likeable guy: the topics are pretty normal fare for Steve, but they’re good ones: he tries to be an individual, he feels sympathy for criminals, politicians are creeps, he seeks justice, he feels for the common man…these are all good things! Well, the last one is a bit cloying, but generally speaking he sounds like a wayward friend. The best song here is “Billy Austin,” a six-minute acoustic dirge about a man on death row, but part of its greatness is that it doesn’t cheat by painting an innocent man or a righteous man. The protagonist is a criminal, a bad man, and yet it still manages to be persuasive in its message. Even the bad songs have great songs hidden in them – witness the Gordon Lightfoot melody buried in “Justice in Ontario.” Plus, the album, while generally his most straightforward “rock” record, isn’t afraid to jump all over the place within that paradigm, so you get to hear a choir next to a county twang and it sounds reasonable.

For an album by an addict it sure is gosh darned fun to listen to, and that’s maybe the best part of the whole thing. It’s hard to believe it’s only two albums after the stiff country of “Exit 0” but hey, it’s working. I’ll have a hard time deciding which songs to delete when I’m done with this fourth listen.

8 / 10

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