According to Steve Earle's liner notes for I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, these 11 songs are all "about mortality in one way or another." Certainly the title -- after a song by Hank Williams (also the title of Earle's new novel) -- reflects this, but these songs bear that out in spades. Two of them, "God Is God" and "I Am a Wanderer," were written for Joan Baez and appeared on her Day After Tomorrow album. Earle's versions are less stylized, more worldweary, ragged, and poignant. The former is a sobering anthem which states plainly that human beings -- beginning with the individual -- are not the center of the universe; and strikes at the heart of the conservative notion of "American exceptionalism: "I believe in God, and God ain't us." The latter track is a plaintive country song whose protagonists are day laborers, the homeless, death row inmates, and society's castoffs. The shuffling rockabilly in "Waitin' on the Sky," with producer T-Bone Burnett's and Jackson Smith's (Patti's son) layered electric guitars, Jay Bellerose's taut snare, and Sara Watkins' fiddle, highlight the genuine irony in Earle's words. The hillbilly blues inform "Hey Little Emperor," and the lyrics disguise in pointed humor a deeper anger. "Molly-O" is an old-school murder ballad that offers evidence of a larger darkness than the crime. "The Gulf of Mexico" begins with Earle singing a cappella and becomes an uptempo, lonesome Celtic ballad texturally adorned by Greg Leisz's pedal steel. A song of workers and travelers who quest for basic sustenance, it describes the cost of doing so. Allison Moorer sings with Earle on the bluesy, broken love song "Heaven or Hell"; its martial drumbeat outlines the deathly seriousness in the narrative. "Meet Me in the Alleyway" is a an electric, streetwise, cut-time shuffle à la Tom Waits, with spooky guitar interplay between Smith and Burnett. The folk song "Lonely Are the Free" could have been the album's subtitle as mortality haunts its every phrase. The set closes with "This City," written for and performed in the HBO series Treme; it's just as powerful without cinematic images, thanks to the lyric and Allen Toussaint's forlorn, soulful horn arrangement. I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive's lone downer is Burnett's unnecessarily heavy-handed production. That said, Earle's vocals front and center in a brilliant song cycle transcend it.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek