Alt-country legend Steve Earle famously dealt with a bevy of personal problems in the late ’80s and early ’90s, not least among them a heroin addiction and a short stint in prison. Thankfully, he managed to achieve sobriety and put his life back on track, and it was living through those experiences that brought about the most creatively fertile portion of his career. He released the excellent acoustic record Train a Comin’ in 1994, followed it up with the masterful I Feel Alright in 1996, and continued the winning streak with 1997’s El Corazón (“The Heart” in English), which I’ll be reviewing today.
“Telephone Road” is another classic that demonstrates Earle’s songwriting prowess. The lyrics tell of a young man stuck in a small town with little in the way of economic opportunity who decides to go against his his mother’s wishes by following his older brothers to the big city, setting out on his own for the first time. The song seems like to could be (and probably is) a direct continuation of “Someday” from Guitar Town. An astute portrait of the uncertainties and excitement of youth with an insanely catchy earworm chorus, it represents Earle at his best.
However, the best track on this album is likely the last one. “Ft. Worth Blues” is a moving tribute to Earle’s mentor and close friend, alt-country songwriting giant Townes Van Zandt, who died on New Year’s Day in 1997 at the age of fifty-two. The lyrics perfectly capture the restless, troubled spirit that Van Zandt is said to have suffered from all of his life and which led to the chronic drug use that resulted in his premature death. Earle’s performance is heartfelt and somber without ever coming close to being mawkish or overly sentimental. It’s one of those songs that has the potential to get me teary-eyed every single time.
There’s one notable track I haven’t mentioned yet, so let’s address the elephant in the room: album opener “Christmas in Washington” represents, to my knowledge, Earle’s first foray into overtly partisan politics. The ballad involves Earle, backed by little more than an acoustic guitar, pondering the meaning of the 1996 U.S. presidential election and calling upon the spirits of progressive heroes like Woody Guthrie and Martin Luther King to help combat the perceived injustices of the world that in his view the government won’t address. The overall tone is optimistic and positive, not bitter or grouchy. Regardless of whether or not you agree with Earle’s views, I would easily recommend this track on the basis of it being a moving, extremely well-written ballad of a man passionately articulating the beliefs most dearest to him. However, if you absolutely can not stand politics in your music, skip this song. But note that Earle doesn’t go nearly as far as he does on later albums like The Revolution Stats Now.
There isn’t a bad track on this album, and I have no specific complaints, but truthfully El Corazón probably isn’t as quite as consistently amazing as some other Earle albums, namely Guitar Town and I Feel Alright. However, that’s more in praise of those albums than an indictment of El Corazón, which would undoubtedly serve as a the career record for most artists. It contains several tracks that I regard as essential Earle and is highly enjoyable from start to finish. If you’ve never heard Earle, this might not be the best place to start, but if you’re already a fan, be sure to listen to this.
Grade: 4 out of 4 flags