Steve Earle has earned the indulgences and deferences of statesmanhood: the discography he has assembled these last thirty years is marvellous and important. Not for the first time, however, Earle has released an album which prompts the wish that he’d stop being quite so statesmanlike. Terraplane – the title alludes to Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” – is Earle’s blues album, the sort of thing artists of a certain age and gravitas tend to release when they feel they’re entitled to, akin to a distinguished bishop having a go at saying mass in Aramaic, as if to demonstrate that he could totally have mixed it with his legendary forebears.
Terraplane is a perfectly decent blues album. It’s beautifully played, and Earle’s songs are respectful of their heritage while (mostly) sufficiently confident and idiosyncratic to transcend pastiche. It’s just difficult to believe that this is the best imaginable use of Earle’s time and talents.
Even the title of the opening track, “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)”, self-mockingly admits a tendency towards the generic, and the song does not disappoint at least in that respect: a twelve-bar plod which sounds written as it went along. There’s a stretch too much of this sort of thing: see also “You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had”, “Gamblin’ Blues” and “Acquainted The Wind”. The latter suffers especially from being irresistibly evocative of Spinal Tap’s early incarnation The Thamesmen playing their hit song “Gimme Some Money”.
The lighter the shade of blues, the better Terraplane sounds. “Ain’t Nobody’s Baby Now” is a winning back-porch strum, “Go Go Boots Are Back” revives the Stonesy sleaze of vintage Dukes, and “Baby’s Just As Mean As Me” is a lovely, waspish duet with Dukes violinist y. But Earle’s last real classic, 2002’s Jerusalem, is now more than a decade behind him. Word is that Earle’s next album will be a determinedly country one: an appealing prospect, but perhaps less so than just letting Earle be Earle.