Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highway (Music Review)

The Low Highway cover

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highway

Two years after the excellent I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Steve Earle returns with a solid but unexciting album. The Low Highway does everything fans will want from Earle, but has no real standout songs.

This time performing with “The Dukes (& Duchesses)”, Earle’s band makes this his countriest album in years. Confident, polished, and sticking to a familiar style, this easily fits in with the pop-Americana resurgence of these post-Mumford years. But, while the album mixes his blues-rock with everything from harmonica to fiddle to jazz piano, it’s usually comfortable with slow ballads that fit Earle’s age and his pain. It’s a good choice, and one that stands out next to younger, less soulful bands. Again, it’s just missing those couple great songs that would define it.

So what songs are on this? Well, one of the highlights is “Invisible”, a heartfelt story of homelessness. Earle is one of the few people who still seem to remember that country has a tradition of sympathy for the downtrodden. He sometimes comes across as over-earnest, though, as on “Calico County”‘s description of a poor, meth-blighted town. It’s the rock track on this album, but his heart doesn’t seem in it. Somewhere in between is “The Low Highway”. His personal daydream of hitchhiking mixes in scenes of poor folk on the road and damaged veterans, but they sometimes feel shoehorned in.

Every Earle album has a duet with a woman, and “That All You Got?” is an energetic, swinging track that leads into the equally upbeat “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way”. It’s the most fun part of the album, but there are a couple other sections that come close. On the other hand, those stand out against a couple disappointments. “21st Century Blues” tries to rail against the injustices of today, but his complaints too often sound dated. Missing “flying cars”, “teletransporters”, and Kennedy’s promises, he overlooks the wonders that today does offer. The old promises of jetpacks and Dick Tracey watches have been completely outdone by the reality of smartphones and internet. Not that that is Earle’s main point – there are plenty of injustices around us as well – but his lighthearted comments serve to make him sound out of touch instead of humanizing his political complaints.

Overall, Earle is still refusing to settle down, and he’s a good songwriter who (usually) knows how to play to his strengths. The Low Highway is a nice change of pace, if not one of the albums that stand out over his career.

Grade: B-

 
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