"Fare thee well, I'm bound to roam. . . ." With these old-fashioned, courtly words in "Tennessee Blues" — the opening cut to his Grammy-winning new album Washington Square Serenade — Steve Earle says good-bye to Nashville and rolls north to a big city that floats between two rivers. Against hissy, looped drum tracks, Earle's lyrics, his voice, even his delicate guitar, sound old, old. And it's that collision of times, of cultures, of one's own personal chapters that Earle's looking at and playing with here throughout this remarkable album.
In many ways this is a record about New York City, my hometown. I grew up there and once even got married at the Washington Square Methodist Church. Earle looks at the city with the eyes of a recent arrival (one who can actually afford to live in Greenwich Village). He wonders at New York's fierce energy, its dirt and smell and hard edges, and all the colors of the people and all the music they make. His songs hold that wonder.
In "Down Here Below" he sees it through the eyes of a red-tailed hawk circling high above midtown Manhattan, hunting for a snack — and through the eyes of the tourists and workers and children pointing up at the bird, suspended on some invisible updraft. This song, mostly spoken in Earle's dark, gritty voice, boasts a gorgeous, last-minute bridge that will knock you on your head.
"City of Immigrants," with its lush percussion and layered voices, celebrates the polyglotness of Earle's new home, but it tastes a bit heavy on the wholesome to me. (It bears mentioning that Nashville is hardly a monoculture — it's said to have the largest population of Kurdish people in the United States.) Point being yes, immigrants are everywhere. We're all immigrants. We know.
The rest of the album dives into territory both gruff and fun: stories of OxyContin tragedies and late-night DJs wondering if anyone's listening. In fact, "Satellite Radio" — with its unashamed digital production (a big topic among crabby Earle purists) — is my favorite track here.
But Earle's life right now isn't just the where or the what — it's also the with whom. "Sparkle and Shine" is a sweet paean to his wife, the fine singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, whose voice graces many of the album's songs. In "Days Aren't Long Enough" Earle and Moorer give every line a passionate harmony, as if they can't bear to be alone even for a single word.
Steve Earle and Allison Moorer are at the Michigan Theater on Wednesday, March 5.
[Review published March 2008]