Having watched him throw away the prime years of his career on smack and prison, Steve Earle fans were reassured by the singer's 1995 comeback, Train A Comin'
, where he reclaimed the past in exquisite acoustic arrangements. They were further encouraged by the 1996 followup, I Feel Alright
, which staked out the present with rock & roll defiance. Their patient faith was rewarded with El Corazon
, an album that no longer looks back at those lost years but looks forward to the rest of Earle's career. Combining the sheer beauty of Train A Comin'
with the bristling energy of I Feel Alright
, El Corazon
plows new ground with Earle's most explicitly political song yet, his furthest leap into another character's voice, a hard-core bluegrass number with the Del McCoury Band, and a hard-core grunge rocker with the Supersuckers. Earle turns the Fairfield Four into the Jordanaires behind his Elvis vocal on "Telephone Road," and he imitates Townes Van Zandt's austere minimalism even as he sings an elegy to his late mentor on "Fort Worth Blues." All in all, these dozen tunes are the best songwriting Earle has produced since his 1986 breakthrough, Guitar Town
, and he sings them with the take-it-or-leave-it authority of someone who has nothing left to prove. On the album's first and best song, "Christmas in Washington," he offers a mournful prayer to Woody Guthrie to come back and rescue us from an era of wishy-washy Democrats and ruthless Republicans; Earle sings it as if his prayer had been answered and the Okie troubadour's ghost had found a home in his belly. --Geoffrey Himes