“I ain’t ever satisfied,” Steve Earle sang on his second album, “Exit 0,” released in 1987. Thirteen years later, he’s still restless as hell, desperate for love and happiness but ready to hit the highway at a moment’s notice. Trouble is, as Earle confesses on the title track of his superb new album, the “backroads never carry you where you want ‘em to/They leave you standin’ there with them ol’ transcendental blues.”
When you consider that Earle, 45, defines transcendence as “being still enough long enough to know when it’s time to move on,” his ramblin’ ways seem inevitable. The boy can’t help it. Born in Virginia but raised in Texas, Earle made a big splash in 1986 with “Guitar Town,” his acclaimed debut album. “The hillbilly Bruce Springsteen,” he was called, not altogether inaccurately. His early albums were more rock than country, and his gritty songs, mostly about rebels and outcasts, had some of the same anthemic quality as “Born to Run”-era Springsteen.
In 1990, however, when his fourth album, “The Hard Way,” failed to sell, the good times came to a crashing halt. Dropped by his label, Earle descended into four years of cocaine and heroin addiction, funded by a steady stream of royalty checks. In 1994, he was busted for buying a tenth of a gram of heroin and spent a month in rehab. The treatment worked, and so began the second coming of Steve Earle. The singer-songwriter has produced one stellar disc after another: the roots-rockish “I Feel Alright,” the eclectic “El Corazsn” and the bluegrass-oriented “The Mountain” (recorded with the Del McCoury Band). “Transcendental Blues” continues the string.
Bob Dylan had a similar run in the mid-1960s, starting with “Bringing It All Back Home.” So, of course, did the Beatles. But in today’s world of disposable pop music, such an achievement is practically unheard of. On “Train a Comin’,” Earle recorded a great hillbilly version of Lennon-McCartney’s “I’m Looking Through You.” (“This is the stuff I cut my teeth on,” he wrote in the liner notes. “Middle Class White Boy Roots Music.”) This time around, he forgoes any covers, but the influence of “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” is obvious on “Transcendental Blues.” Earle even plays a synthesizer on the title cut and tacks a strange little reprise onto the end of “Everyone’s in Love With You,” ` la “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
He doesn’t push the psychedelia too far, though. Earle and his band, the Dukes (guitarist David Steele, bassist Kelley Looney and drummer Will Rigby), along with assorted guest musicians, mix things up, dipping into Dylanesque folk rock (“Another Town”), Irish string-band music (“The Galway Girl”), bluegrass (“Until the Day I Die”) and flat-out rock ‘n’ roll (“All of My Life”). “I have spent most of my life (like most people) avoiding transcendence at all costs,” Earle writes in the liner notes, “mainly because the shit hurts.”
And it’s true: “Transcendental Blues” is a deeply personal album steeped in pain and loneliness. Nearly every song contains the word “lonesome,” “alone” or “lonely.” One is even titled “Lonelier Than This.” (“It doesn’t get any lonelier than this/I believe my heart’ll break/Tonight I prayed I’d die before I wake.”) “Wherever I Go” finds Earle “all alone,” with “a hurtin’ deep down in my soul.” Rejected, dejected, he promises to move on to another town, with his past behind him and his future bright. At the same time, he’s “thinkin’ ’bout givin’ up this ramblin’ ’round/Hangin’ up my highway shoes/Lately when I walk they make a hollow sound” (“Steve’s Last Ramble”). He longs for someone to ease the pain, to make life bearable, to catch him when he falls.
To keep things in perspective, Earle ends the album with the poignant “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” inspired, no doubt, by his experience as a witness to the execution of Jonathan Nobles, a convicted murderer who spent 12 years on death row in a Huntsville, Texas, prison. Earle, a passionate death penalty opponent, refrains from preaching, focusing instead on the prisoner’s thoughts as he prepares to die: “I am going up over yonder/Where no ghost can follow me/There’s another place beyond here/Where I’ll be free, I believe.” If a soon-to-die convict can be at peace with himself, Earle seems to be saying, so can I.