How should a blues record start? Easy: with a harmonica riff. And Steave Earle’s Terraplane is no exception. This means that the album knows the rules of the game, but also that it is plain and at times it sounds tired. Maybe even boring. For the title of his sixteenth album the Americana songwriter drew inspiration from a song by Delta-blues guitarist Robert Leroy Johnson, Terraplane Blues, called after the fast 1930s Hudson car. As some of you may know, mythology has it that the legendary musician gained his extraordinary musical talents by making a deal with the Devil at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61. He used to claim that he learned to play guitar from the Devil himself. Steve Earle’s The Tennesse Kid, one of the few tracks that stand out in this record, evokes that legend with involving speak-sung lyrics in iambic pentameter. It reminds me of the looming darkness of some psychedelic rock classics, such as Heroin by Velvet Underground.
But let’s go back to the boredom. Baby Baby Baby (Baby) is built around a single chord. Better Off Alone and The Usual Time sound like a repetitive whine. Then comes the triplet Go Go Boots Are Back, Acquainted With The Wind and Baby Just As Mean As me, in the second half of the album. The first one recalls Muddy Waters’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s style (just like King Of The Blues) and shows Earle’s harsh voice and the singer’s complicity with his band, the Dukes (Kelly Looney, Will Rigby, Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore); the second leaves us a manifesto of Earle’s own voice as soon as he sings “I’m howling like a gale, I’m whispering like a breeze”, has a swinging rhythm and features Earle’s mandolin; the third is an alert duet with Eleanor Whitmore, and its unexpected country twist makes me think of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Anyway they’re all musically flat. On the contrary, Gamblin’ Blues is a simple gem with an authentic sound and a well-crafted, upfront storytelling.
Steve Earle said he has written many of these 11 tracks while touring Europe alone, after he finalized his divorce from his seventh wife, singer Allison Moorer. He said he needed money. While we certainly cannot say that this record is dominated by a sense of sadness (which we could expect, being inspired by a divorce) it’s undeniable that the songs are quite monotonous. From a Grammy winner veteran songwriter whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, the Pretenders and Carl Perkins (to mention a few) I definitely expected more.