Washington Square Serenade is another substantial chapter in what looks like becoming an epic songbook.
Maybe it was inevitable that when Steve Earle moved to Greenwich Village he’d produce his first full folk album (discounting the bluegrass detour The Mountain) since the mid ’90s. That being said, Washington Square Serenade is no sepia-tinted period piece. The presence of Dust Brother John King behind the desk means the Texan has absorbed urban pulses, marrying the implicit rhythms of Depression-era balladeers and talking blues to the stripped digitalism of Beck’s Mellow Gold or even Christy Moore’s Traveller. Anyone expecting Steve to suddenly start dripping bling will be disappointed; in most cases the rhythmic sensibility approximates roots-rock conventions rather than Dre or Timbaland.
As always, the songcraft takes centre stage, whether it’s ‘Tennessee Blues’, which seems to hypothesise a young Dylan arriving in present day-glo NYC, or ‘Down Here Below’, a free verse downtown vignette that relates William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane to Hank and Townes and also boasts a nifty banjo-tattooed breakdown.
You might call it hick-hop. ‘Satellite Radio’ hinges on a crisp, clipped backbeat that rubs nicely off Earle’s southern vowels, a vocal style that unfussily connects the cadences of CB radio trucker gab, frontier DJs and block party MCs.
But for this listener, the album’s central triptych steals the show. ‘Jericho Road’ is a purgatorial stroll through Desolation Row in which Steve meets the revenant spirits of his kin in an atmosphere pitched between Shakespeare and Springsteen; ‘Oxycontin Blues’ is both a miner’s lament and methamphetamine cook’s testimonial that joins Deadwood, Dakota to Copperhead Road by way of a martial snare figure; and ‘Red Is The Colour’, rather than being a tribute to his new missus Allison Moorer’s hennaed tresses, is an apocalyptic ballad backed by medieval minstrel mandolin and blues harp through a distorted bullet mike.
Later, the bride herself drops by to duet on the tender valentine ‘Days Aren’t Long Enough’, which, along with ‘Sparkle And Shine’ is one of Earle’s finer grown-up love songs. And by way of a kicker, there’s a version of Tom Waits’ ‘Way Down In The Hole’, recorded for The Wire, which resists imitating the original’s bog-dwelling troglodyte oddness and instead renders it as a soulful ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ morality play.
A restless, industrious spirit, Steve Earle’s reputation grows with every record. Washington Square Serenade is another substantial chapter in what looks like becoming an epic songbook.
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