El Corazon 

Steve Earle's healthy heart beats hard on his latest release

El Corazón
Steve Earle
Warner Brothers

Steve Earl's CD

"For cryin' out loud, somebody get those guys some drugs!" That exclamation has been echoed by plenty of old Aerosmith fans upon hearing the dreck they've been churning out since trading their coke spoons for LifeCycles.

Which goes to show, all too often, when a creative talent gets off the juice or junk, the music loses its edge and becomes facile.

To paraphrase Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, I don't advocate a life of drugs, alcohol and violence, but it seems to have worked for plenty of musicians-be it Aero-smith, Lou Reed, Merle Haggard or George Jones.

And then there's one of Texas' most prodigal sons Steve Earle.

Having shed his 20-year-old monkey, it seems Earle's been the busiest guy in Nashville during the last few years, putting out three albums of his own, and producing everyone under the sun, including (rumor has it) a new disc from his female counterpart Lucinda Williams.

On El Corazón, his latest, Earle provides solid proof that he has not only cleaned up, but has done so without losing a drop of the piss and vinegar that has made him the Music City's blackest sheep and most interesting contemporary fixtures.

I had to listen to El Corazón a dozen times to even begin to absorb it, and there are still new rewards each time I drop it in the player. El Corazón has a retrospective feel, at times, with traces of every album Earle's done clear back to the na•ve twang of Early Tracks. ("Earle-y," get it?)

And though shot through with Earle's usual themes of oppression and lost hope, the album's cynicism is offset by music of celebration and declarations of love. Still, Earle is best when he's singing about trouble.

On "Taneytown," he's the voice of a young black man falsely accused of a crime. Sinewy lead guitar and a desultory harmony from Emmylou Harris paint a picture of desperation and the hard choices facing a man backed into a corner. The misunderstood but hardly innocent loner is a frequent subject of Earle's songs. The protagonist in "Taneytown" could be the running partner of the defiant outlaw in "Tom Ames' Prayer" from 1996's great acoustic outing, Train A Comin'.

The amps get cranked up to eleven on such Copperhead Road-style rockers as "Here I Am" and "NYC." Earle's backed on the latter by the Supersuckers, a Seattle-area band that's more grunge than grange (even if their frontman does wear a cowboy hat). Here, Earle sounds like he's calling in the vocal from a pay phone, while power-chording Les Pauls snarl at him from outside the booth. Hell, there's even a stuttered sample-"go-go-goin' to New Yawk City"-toward the end of the song.

It's safe to say Earle's not shackled to tradition.

The bluster gives way to easy-going country on the next song, "Poison Lovers," a duet with Siobhan Kennedy which could be an outtake from Guitar Town. The harmony is not what you'd call angelic, but with the insistent acoustic guitar and gentle organ supporting the spare, deliberate lead electric guitar, that just adds to the tune's charm. Another homespun love song, "I Still Carry You Around," fleshes out a musical side of Earle he's only hinted at before. I'd love to see him record an entire album of bluegrass someday.

The sheer breadth of style pays testimony to the growth of Earle's vision as well as his command of the country-rock-folk idiom. "Christmas in Washington," a deceptively gentle guitar and accordion number, hurls lyrical insults at a government forever caught with its grubby hand in the cookie jar. And Earle's lazy Texas drawl evokes a world-weary man who has watched the long, slow decline of the morals and values of his beloved country.

Like fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Earle emerged from his private drug-addiction hell with his talent intact and without a heavy coat of polish.

Sadly, Stevie Ray can give us no more, but this other Texas Steve looks to be around for a good, long time.

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