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Steve Earle's "Terraplane" Reviewed

Steve Earle's Blues "Terraplane"

Steve Earle’s Blues “Terraplane”

On Steve Earle’s 16th studio album, he’s a man with the blues. Or, more accurately, a man with “the blues.” This isn’t a record of contemporary blues material and neither is it a heartfelt tribute album in the mode of Phil and Dave Alvin’s excellent 2014 release Common Ground. For a stylistic predecessor, go way back to Billy Joel’s 1980’s album An Innocent Man, where Joel wrote pop tributes to pre-British Invasion rock ‘n’ roll. Steve Earle’s Terraplane attempts to recreate the sound and style of blues greats like Howlin’ Wolf, Mance Lipscomb, and Lightnin’ Hopkins on Terraplane using his own original compositions. For the most part, he fails miserably.

There are, at least, three fundamental problems with Earle’s approach to this album. Vocally, Earle is a born hammer; he’s the type of singer that works when he’s going for the jugular. He has no ability to project whimsy or humor. The attempts at being lighthearted simply come across as flat. When he rhymes “school/fool” and “light/outasite” on “Go Go Boots Are Back,” it doesn’t sound like he’s bringing a hip blues attitude to the party – it just sounds lazy.

The second fundamental problem is that Earle has always been a lyric driven artist and he has nothing to say on this album. Since he’s emulating his blues heroes instead of writing in his own voice, he isn’t trying to communicate his own emotions or thoughts. While the use of repetitive patterns is a blues tradition, when he sings the word “baby” over 75 times on the lead track, titled “Baby Baby Baby (Baby),” it’s almost like a practical joke he’s playing on the listener. The pretentious spoken word fire and brimstone allegory “The Tennessee Kid” sounds like something Earle cribbed from Ray Wylie Hubbard’s trashcan.

One could label the final problem generously as an inability to transcend his influences or, perhaps more accurately, unimaginative theft. The foundation of “Acquainted With the Wind” is a direct rip of the riff from The Who’s “My Generation.” “Gamblin’ Blues” sounds like an upbeat version of “Frankie and Johnny” with different lyrics.

While the majority of the material doesn’t work, “Better Off Alone” is a slow tempo, psychedelic tinged, blues pop song with the best vocal on the album. The closer, “King of the Blues,” has the badass hyperbole of the best of Muddy Waters (think of his version of Willie Dixon’s “The Seventh Son”) with a Hendrix inspired blues sound. Earl would have made a much better album if he had used ‘60s blues rock for his template.

On one  level you can admire the schoolyard punk hubris of Earle titling his record with a Robert Johnson reference, but his blues pastiches are so comparatively pale that it makes him seem completely blinded by his own arrogance. I’m left wondering if anyone in Earle’s camp ever tells him that he has a bad idea. Earle is an artist that I have long admired and respected, but blues is about authenticity and emotion, instead Earle delivered self-congratulatory period pieces.

Terraplane is released February 17th, 2015

Grade – C

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