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Transcendental Blues

music reviewmusic reviewmusic reviewmusic review  out of 4 Music Review: Transcendental Blues

Artist: Steve Earle
Genre: Country
Release Date: June 2000

Review by LarryG
4 stars out of 4

Transcendental Blues is the best record of Steve Earle's very good career; it's a rich and varied work, overflowing with great rockers, folk music and ballads. Transcendental Blues is personal but still musically appealing. The stories are often sad but the music is warm and generous. Earle's skill as a songwriter keeps growing. He seems unconcerned with pop success but still writes catchy, likable songs.

While Earle's youthful days of foolish behavior, drugs and a stint in jail are hopefully long behind him and Earle's life is clearly more stable, he's still searching. Earle's voice seems rougher and wearier than ever on Transcendental Blues. His voice fits with his persona on many of the songs as a guy who's been repeatedly disappointed but keeps struggling on. The title track sets a great tone for Transcendental Blues. The sound is minimal. A simple guitar line cuts through a murky haze of keyboards, guitars and drums that apparently reflect Earle's turmoil. He continues to travel back roads, seeking transcendence but ending up with the blues. Everyone's In Love With You, Earle's slightly bitter song about a woman who digs the attention of many men but doesn't want a deep relationship, introduces the strong band which supports Earle on most of the record. Will Rigby provides a solid beat and Earle and David Steele's tight, unshowy guitar lines wrap around each other, creating a gritty rocker. I Can Wait is another ambivalent piece about women but the nice, easy acoustic rock matches Earle's hopeful belief that it's all right that things aren't working out now because "this poor heart of mine probably could use some rest." Earle has already shown his mastery of midtempo rockers on songs like El Corazon's brilliant Somewhere Out There. Transcendental Blues has a few gems. I Don't Wanna Lose You Yet finds the kind of rapture the CD's title refers to. Earle's vulnerable vocals, the easy guitars and Benmont Tench's keyboards combine for an extremely winning result as Earle sings of not wanting to fall prey to "a cold hard world" and trying to find hope in a warm embrace. Wherever I Go, which has a surprisingly sunny feel for a song about being followed by a dark cloud, is another very good rocker, loosened up by Tench's smooth keyboards. Earle has done good work with women before like I Feel Alright's You're Still Standin' There, a duet with Lucinda Williams. Transcendental Blues has When I Fall, a very nice duet with Earle's sister Stacey, a decent singer/songwriter in her own right. Stacey is probably speaking from experience when she sings about having seen Earle stumble and promises to catch him when he falls. Earle shows he can still do a good hard straight ahead rocker on All Of My Life. Another Town is a fairly standard but fun, upbeat country rocker about trying to work up the courage to move on with his life. Strings create the appropriate evocative mood for the mythic ballad The Boy Who Never Cried. The music on Lonelier Than This is strikingly stark as Earle sadly sings of being on the road and missing his love. On Transcendental Blues, Earle mostly stays away from political songs, like El Corazon's Christmas in Washington, but he finishes the record with Over Yonder which, like his Ellis Unit One from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, is about death row, though this time from the perspective of a condemned man. It's a sad, quiet song, with evocative details instead of propaganda, that fits with with the album's other songs about men facing up to past mistakes.

Earle recorded a couple songs in Dublin, using some local musicians. The fiddles, accordians and other traditional instruments are reminiscent of Earle's last CD, The Mountain, which he made with the Del McCoury Band. On The Mountain, Earle seemed seduced by the bluegrass sound and he didn't always take advantage of his contemporary songwriting gifts. The Irish songs are a more enjoyable mix of rock and traditional folk. An accordion lifts Steve's Last Ramble, a joyous song about giving up the ramblin' life. The Galway Girl is also a lot of fun. A tin whistle and fiddles mix with Earle's roots rock. It's another song about Earle getting his heart broken but he seems to have had fun along the way. Back in the States, Earle has good fun with a classic bluegrass sound on Until The Day I Die, giving a light hearted charm to the story of a guy in prison, regretting leaving his small town and, especially, his first love.

Earle long ago evolved from a country singer to a rocker who can thrive in many different genres. In terms of quality and ambition, the long made comparisons with Bruce Springsteen have been more accurate than ever for Earle's last three solo records. In some ways, such as working in different styles and in being able to mature and not lose his rocking appeal, Earle has been even more successful. I Feel Alright and El Corazon were very good records but Transcendental Blues is amazing. In the past, I've sometimes thought Earle's slower songs were a little draggy and his rockers weren't so subtle. On Transcendental Blues, there's nothing even close to a bad song. The only possible complaint is that Earle's singing is pretty awful. I find Earle's hoarse, struggling voice fascinating. It fits well with Earle's heartfelt songs about a man who's all too human, whose life combines sadness and hope, who's had lots of setbacks but keeps trying.



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