After Steve Earle's 1990 album The Hard Way stumbled in the marketplace and his drug addiction became a poorly kept secret in Nashville, he was on the outs with his record label, MCA, who decided to let him out of his contract in the time-honored fashion, with a live album. Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator was recorded in October 1990 during a pair of shows in Ontario, Canada, where Earle had become an arena-level star, and features him and his band rolling through a set of his biggest hits. While Earle's voice was starting to show signs of strain on The Hard Way, here it ranges between sandy and ragged, and there are moments on this album where he sounds like he's running on fumes (most notably "Guitar Town" and "The Other Kind"). At the same time, there are other numbers where he's sharp and committed; he wrenches every ounce of drama he can from "Billy Austin," his short but pointed cover of Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #9" is great, and the long, ominous creepy crawl through "West Nashville Boogie" easily trumps the version on The Hard Way. Earle's band is solid and picks up the slack when he gets winded, especially guitarist Zip Gibson and Bucky Baxter on steel and six-string, but while his audience is behind him all the way, Earle himself isn't at his best here. It wasn't until four years after Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator was released that Steve Earle's "vacation in the ghetto" ended and he came back with a vengeance on Train a Comin', and Earle started living up to the potential that the best moments of this album proved he still had in reserve.
Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator Review
by Mark Deming