To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.
2000 – #8. Steve Earle – Transcendental Blues
For as long as I can remember, I have always had some genre I was obsessed about and exploring. Punk and hardcore at 15, power pop and garage rock at 17, and in my late teens early 20s it was all about alt-country. By 2000, that obsession was dying down. With that, this is the last of a string of Steve Earle records that I loved. In the man’s own words, Transcendental Blues was a big record – a record so big he could take a break from making records for a while after this.
Earle, for my money, was flawless from when he made his big return from drugs and darkness with Train A Comin’ until this record. In those five records he brought a reckless rock ‘n’ roll spirit to the country adage of ‘four chords and the truth’. I was aware had a more commercial career before all this, but those records were tough to find – and I didn’t really try that hard.
Transcendental Blues feels like a best of those records. In the same way the U2 album of that year (All That You Can’t Leave Behind) was the boiled down classic elements of U2, this record was Steve Earle at his simplest. Only lightly bluegrass in places, it rocks and bit not too tough. The ballads are sad but you don’t slash your wrist. It makes the record sound watered down, but it’s actually it’s strength. It’s solid as a house.
The title track is one of Earle’s best. A hymn for rednecks. Steve’s Last Ramble and Another Town are two of his best, escapist rockers. That escape theme, or as Earle puts it in his liner notes – the feeling of going through something (like a divorce or a windscreen). I returned to this album in the middle of the last decade when I was planning my own escape.
They really got the sound down by this time. A long standing producer relationship with Ray Kennedy (as a duo they were known as ‘Twangtrust’) was really red hot now. One of the reasons we asked Michael Carpenter to produce our albums was because he was a big fan of the production on these records. Also Twangtrust was too far away.
This is also the album that has Galway Girl, which has became a standard in Ireland and I know see it in Irish beer ads.
At the time there was a huge controversy about Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song). Its a song about a person Earle knew and knew well who was on death row. He made a film clip for the song with the mug shots of every person sentenced to death under GW Bush’s time as Governor. Ballsy stuff, and I couldn’t wait to see it, the left wing pinko that I am. But once you see it, you realise…it’s mostly black men. They left that off the press release.
I moved on from alt-country after this (and yes I still call it that, why not, it’s like people who say Television were not punk). And I never really felt the same way about another Steve Earle record. Or Son Volt. Or Slobberbone. Or a lot of those bands. The grass roots honesty and values of country bands went away.
But if you were going to start with Steve Earle, I would without a doubt say this is where to start.