STEVE EARLE – I Feel Alright (1996 Warner)
One of the greatest albums of the 90s might never have happened if Steve Earle didn’t get addicted, go to jail, and finally clean up. Earle was always a formidable songwriter. “Ain’t Ever Satisfied”, “Someday”, and “The Other Kind” (to name only three) dripped with emotion and a certain perfection, insofar as art goes. Steve’s songs were always about life, but in the 90s, life got intense. I Feel Alright is the resultant album, a masterpiece that serves as the prototype for several more of Earle’s later works.
I Feel Alright was actually preceded by an acoustic album called Train A Comin’, made up of songs written from 1974 to 1995 In the liner notes, Steve tells the story.
“When I was locked up, I was getting ready to go off on this boy that stole my radio. My partner Paul asked me where I was going. I said, ‘To get my radio, and then go to the hole for a little while.’ He looked at me like I look at my 13 year old sometimes and said, ‘No, you ain’t. You’re gonna sit your little white ass down and do your little time and then you’re gonna get out of here and make me a nice record.’ SO, I MADE TWO.”
“I Feel Alright” opens with defiant chords, hands hitting the strings unrelentingly, and then Steve opens his mouth. It’s the same voice but somehow, now it feels like he really means it. “I feel alright tonight,” he sings reassuringly. Because we were worried about him! The worldly lyrics are backed by shimmering layers of guitar.
Fun hits hard on “Hard Core Troubadour”, classic guitars chiming away. Singing about a girl who’s seeing another guy on the side, Steve threatens him with the epic line: “Wherefore art thou Romeo, you son of a bitch?” It’s over and out in under three minutes, but the enduring adventure will be worth a repeat spin.
A blast of harmonica enters for the sentimental “More Than I Can Do”. Upbeat and unforgettable. Simple, impeccably constructed, and effective. Three perfect songs in a row.
The first ballad, “Hurtin’ Me, Hurtin’ You”, is the kind of song Steven Tyler has been trying to write since about 1993, except done right. This is what he’s been trying to write — the bluesy country heartbroken ballad with punch. Sorry Tyler, Steve’s got you beat. This song has “Crazy” beat by a country mile.
Upbeat harmonica enters the fray once again on “Now She’s Gone”, the story of a wild child. Something Steve probably knows a thing or two about. Vivid storytelling. “She met a boy up in Kentucky, Charlie was his name. Just when he thought he got lucky, she stole his watch and chain.” Most of I Feel Alright is short and sweet and this is no exception. With rough and weathered voice, Earle sings it with intent.
Side one closes on “Poor Boy”, traditional country a-la Johnny (Cash or Horton). Strong beat, light twang, and seasoned singing. This is the kind of country Steve would have grown up on.
Opening side two, “Valentine’s Day” is a somber apology. It sounds like Earle has made quite a few apologies in his day, and this represents them all. Gentle, with subtle country backing vocals and light strings.
The clouds give way to a fiery blaze in “The Unrepentant”. Steve’s hunting the devil himself this time, with a “bad attitude and a loaded .44.” He concludes his threat with, “You got your pitchfork and I got my gun…somebody’s gotta do it.” Fans of “Copperhead Road” will enjoy this song cut from a similar electrified cloth, though at a slower, more deliberate pace.
The only track on I Feel Alright that might be out of step is the blunt blues “CCKMP” (“Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain”). It’s obviously dark, raw, and intense. Clearly born from Steve’s own experiences, and completely relevant to the journey. Will you enjoy listening to it? Difficult to say. What can be said is “CCKMP” is the dark point of this ride, the scary part in the tunnel. It has its place. It would have been wrong to leave out this crucial part of Steve’s journey.
“Billy and Bonnie” is a classic outlaw story, mandolin singing away while a driving beat takes us on down a dusty dirt road. A Cadillac, a gas station robbery, and a day in court make for a killer story (literally)! Then it’s a little bit of traditional country bluegrass on “South Nashville Blues”. Looking for a little company, with money in pocket.
Ending as strongly as it began, I Feel Alright goes out on a duet with Lucinda Williams. “You’re Still Standing There” is the love letter at the end of the story, the happy ending. More blasts of harmonica, backed by impeccable melodic construction. When you filter those melodies through the very human voices of Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, you get a raw celebration of a closer that just makes you wanna smile.
The celebration is just that Steve survived. That he came back truly a stronger singer/songwriter is the remarkable part. Though he came close to perfection on followup albums like El Corazón and Trancendental Blues, song for song, Steve has never touched the level of I Feel Alright again. It’s one of those magical albums that’s composed of classic after classic after classic; songs you want to keep hearing over and over again. Very real performances, communicating human emotion efficaciously. A perfect record.