After his father's death in late 2008, the singer-songwriter Steve Earle reluctantly began writing songs about passing and passage, about the end of things. The result is a gritty, tender, unflinching new record, produced by T Bone Burnett, one of Earle's very best: "We'll Never Get Out of Here Alive."
Earle's rugged, in-it-all-the-way writing carries the day, as usual. Every song is colored with shades of impermanence, though not always about literal, physical death. "The Gulf of Mexico," for example, alludes to death in nature, about BP spilling "the guts of hell" into the ocean. "Little Emperor" alludes to the passing of the Bush presidency. "This City," gentle as a prayer, with a horn arrangement by Allen Toussaint, captures the resolute spirit of New Orleans before an approaching storm:
"This City won't wash away/This city won't ever drown/Blood in the water and hell to pay/Sky tear open and pain rain down/Doesn't matter 'cause come what may/I ain't ever gonna leave this town/This city won't wash away/This city won't ever drown."
T Bone Burnett's lighter nuanced touch - every song a different texture - only accentuates the beauty of Earle's slurry, hard-road vocals. Yet it's still Earle's writing that rules. And for all his toughness, it's Earle's aching sincerity that rules.
The most arresting cut on "I'll Never Get out of this World Alive" is also the most delicate: "Every Part of Me." The song is a naked declaration of love and gratitude set against the (humble? unsettling?) understanding that our lives can - and probably will - end at any moment: "And when I'm gone they'll sing a song/about a lonely fool who wandered/around the world and back again/but in the end he finally found her."
Earle will perform songs from 'I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive' and sign copies of his book of the same name.
When: 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 4. Where: Waterloo Records, 600 N. Lamar Blvd.
Information: www.waterloorecords.com .