Despite best-laid plans, it has been a while between blogs. My excuse is solid – I spent September travelling in America, travelling to a number of particularly musical places in America, to be vaguely specific. There’ll be more about that next time, but for now I’ve gone back to something I previously wrote for Simon to provide partial cover for one of his rare breaks from his Stuff blog.
He had asked contributors to gush about an album. I took that to mean I should go for broke. No equivocation, simply sing the praises of an album I loved, which is what I did.
I don’t like gushing about albums as a general rule. Not in writing anyhow. It’s not that there aren’t albums I love; it’s just that gushing about them isn’t normally very interesting. It always seems like the writer is trying to convince the reader to like something, and I can’t really see the point in that.
I mean, I can tell you that the songs, arrangements and performances on Steve Earle’s 1996 album I Feel Alright are fantastic. I can explain how the mid-90s saw Earle eschewing the reverb-drenched production of his 80s output for a more natural, gritty, and still occasionally fairly raucous, sound. I can rave about that voice of his, such an unmistakable instrument. But you can just look up the album on YouTube and hear it all for yourself.
Your tastes are probably quite different than mine though, and so you likely won’t feel the same way about the album. And even if we are simpatico, even if your taste runs right alongside mine, there’s still every chance you’ll think to yourself, “Well, it’s good I guess, but I’d rather listen to the new Drive-by Truckers album”. Nothing I can say will change that, so normally I would rather discuss the eccentricities or uniqueness of an album, its place in history, even its failings. Those things are interesting. Saying how great something is, trying to sell it… not always so interesting. [side note: this was obviously written before I decided to gush about Jan Hellriegel’s Tremble]
But I do think there is something to be said about why I’ve always thought this album is so great. I mean, there’s not a bad song on it, and at 19 years old it opened me up to a style of music I’d never contemplated before. But beyond that, what makes I Feel Alright interesting is how the context in which it was created grants it a meaning and coherence that elevates it from a set of great songs, to a great set of songs (if you see my distinction).
Released in 1996, I Feel Alright came eight years after Earle struck gold with Copperhead Road, but a scant two years after his life went right off the rails and right into jail (drugs and weapons offences) and court-ordered stint in rehab. It was his second post-prison album after 1995’s Train A Comin’. But where that album was a collection of older songs and covers, I Feel Alright was entirely new material very obviously informed by both his newfound sobriety the struggles preceding it. So much so that I’ve always heard it as a sort of concept album, even though there’s nothing to suggest that was Earle’s intent.
Of course, a multitude of artists have come back from the bottle or the needle or whatever else might have got under their skin, and most of them have written about it. But most of their albums aren’t as good at capturing it as this one is, so why does the back-story to I Feel Alright help elevate it so high in my estimation?
It’s certainly not that every song on I Feel Alright is explicitly about addiction or recovery. Sure, when Earle sings, “heroin’s the only thing, the only gift that darkness brings” on Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain, he’s not being cryptic, and the survivor’s defiance of the title track is not subtle either, but many of the songs make no obvious reference to addiction. Indeed, tracks like Valentine’s Day could sit on any (good) country album. They’re rich tales of heartbreak and regret, sure, but not exactly public service announcements about drug abuse.
But then, the impact of addiction goes so far beyond the act of taking drugs, it bleeds into every part of life. When Earle sings regretfully to a lover in Hurtin’ Me, Hurtin’ You, it sounds like any country lament. But in the context of the album, and the context of Earle’s backstory, it’s hard not to surmise that perhaps the undefined misdeeds detailed in that song could easily relate to Earle’s trip downtown “just to ease my pain” in a later track, South Nashville Blues. And so it’s easy to hear these tracks as chapters in a diary, a chronicle of mistakes being admitted, loss being recognised, and a life being put back together again. The narrator in these songs is clearly profoundly regretful and, for the most part, the narrator is clearly Earle himself.
Even the least evidently personal of the tracks, Billy and Bonnie, does not stray far thematically. I try not to draw too long a bow with song interpretations, but when Earle reaches the crux of the tale, the comedown after a thrill-seeking relationship collapses into betrayal, it seems like no grand stretch to see hints of an addiction parable.
Of course, in the hands of a lesser songwriter, an album so inextricably linked to its backstory, so focused on personal experience, may not connect as well as this one does. I’m a sucker for tales of hard living, but only as an outsider looking in. I’ve never been arrested, never gone to prison nor needed rehab, and I suspect my greatest regrets wouldn’t dent Earle’s top 10. But he is able to write universally enough that I Feel Alright is more than just a vicarious thrill, because it resonates with me.
Regret, resilience, hope… The drama of violence and addiction make for exciting stories, but there’s nothing in the album that can’t be reconceptualised by listeners leading very different lives than Earle’s. And that’s not just the case for the love songs either. The track I Feel Alright is both consciously overblown and extremely autobiographical, but beyond simply serving as an introduction to the artist’s state of mind, it captures the grim euphoria of survival. It captures those moments in life (mine, yours or Earle’s) where simply feeling alright is a triumph.
The key, I think, is the conviction with which Earle delivers his lines, and the knowledge I as a listener have of Earle’s own experiences. The album connects emotionally because it’s so easy to believe it’s all real. And when you believe that what a songwriter is conveying is real, it’s that much easier to relate it to your own circumstance, your own life, in some small way. And if enabling listeners to do that isn’t the definition of having mastered the craft of song writing, then I don’t know what is.
And so the album works as Earle’s own personal recovery tale, and more universally as a set of songs capturing a set of very human experiences. Earle himself has said he found his voice during this part of his career, and it’s hard to disagree. There have been nine or 10 albums in the years since. Not all have been so personal, but all have been good. In fact, some have been great, but I Feel Alright still feels like the foundation for an artistic resurgence that has never really lost its momentum.
So there it is, why I like the album, and why the album is interesting to me beyond simply being great (although it is simply great). It’s probably a start to a wider discussion of the small number of albums I could gush about without equivocation, but for now let’s leave it at I Feel Alright. Maybe you’ll check it out and it will grab you like it grabbed me. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe what I’ve talked about in relation to this album will make sense when applied to an album you love. Or maybe it won’t. Whatever the case, Simon’s request lead to me spending couple of days revisiting an old favourite, and you all know how great that can be.
A few days after this ran on Stuff, Steve Earle played Wellington, which lead to the less familiar but equally nifty experience of overhearing somebody a bit down the bar discuss my article and this album, both positively and in some depth. Cheers to you, whoever you were, I hope you enjoyed the show. It was the best of four I’ve seen from Earle – the inclusion of Chris and Eleanor Masterson granting this line up of the Dukes a degree of nimbleness in their approach to Earle’s material that previous, more bar-band leaning, versions of the band perhaps lacked. That said, it was reassuring to see long-time bassist Kelly Looney still there, still looking like an extra from Roadhouse.
Radio Nowhere is a new initiative here at Off The Tracks – a fortnightly guest column by Michael Ross. Record-collection reflection and other stray thoughts associated with music purchasing, collecting and listening.