Album Review – “El Corazón” by Steve Earle 

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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.

Steve Earle is one of those artists whose sound is impossible to pigeonhole. He can pull off country-folk, hard rock, and traditional bluegrass, often all on the same album, and El Corazón is a great example of his versatility. Successful stabs are taken at bluegrass (“I Still Carry You Around” with the Del McCoury Band, foreshadowing their later collaborative album), pure country (“The Other Side of Town”), and hard rock (the outstanding “N.Y.C.”, in which Earle is accompanied by the alternative rock band the Supersuckers). While the production of “N.Y.C.” is laid on thick, specifically in an apparent vocal distortion in the chorus, it completely works in the context of the song’s narrative of a young man visiting the Big Apple for the first time. Other strong tracks include the alt-country/rock humdinger “If You Fall”, the confident mission statement “Here I Am”, and “Poison Lovers”, a well-crafted duet with English pop singer-songwriter Siobhan Kennedy.
Great storytelling is a hallmark of most any Earle album, and nowhere is that more evident than in the racism-examining “Taneytown”, a superb alt-country rocker. The narrator is a young African American man (presumably living in the nineteenth or early twentieth century) who, against his mother’s orders, sneaks into the big city alone “just to see what he could see.” Needless to say, this turns out to a be a very bad idea as the man encounters some very serious trouble, but it ends with a nice twist. The chorus is absolutely goosebumps-raising, and Earle’s performance, accompanied by some riveting harmonica and electric guitar, is phenomenal. Emmylou Harris’ harmony vocals, which elevate nearly every song in which they’re present, cement this track as one of my favorites in Earle’s catalog.

“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


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