Harlan Howard wasn't thinking of Steve Earle, but he penned his recent twist of fate: "I'm just hangin' 'round a better class of losers.... Uptown, downtown, misery's all the same." You can't blame Earle for swapping the Cold Creek Correctional Facility and crack houses for apple tobacco and Pellegrino with New Yorker poets, but you can wonder how the company he keeps will shape his songwriting. After a much-publicized heroin addiction, detox and return from the all-but-dead, Earle found the distinguished company of Norman Blake and Roy Huskey Jr. and made the most consistent record of his career, 1995's Train A Comin'. It was the first in a series of records that, in the last 10 years, only Lucinda Williams has matched, song for song, for endurance and depth.
Now Earle's conducting writing workshops and hitting the poetry and protest circuit. Lyrics have gushed forth as from a deadline Homer; remarkably, Earle's art hasn't faltered. He still thrives on confrontation, only now, rage and resentment have given way to unsuspected wisdom -- "I've spent my life following things I cannot see/Just when I catch up to them, they slip away from me" -- at times, even transcendence.
If Transcendental Blues occasionally comes off like a fair Tom Petty album, it also frequently realizes Earle's conflicted vision in which the Beatles, Jimmie Rodgers and Bruce Springsteen are wrapped into one rock & roll tattoo. On the title track and opener, guitars and string sections peal wildly, then loop backward, as underrated drummer Will Rigby churns the surreal waves along. "Everyone's in Love With You" rocks till it's black and blue and spinning in reverse: It's the record's only bitter, angry moment, and the power-pop crush is thrilling.
Trippy garage rock gives way to genre nibbling -- which never fails to impress critics -- then to distracted sequencing and then to some surprisingly drab writing. The precise, lyrical narratives of his finest songs ("Fort Worth Blues," "Ellis Unit One," "The Other Kind," "Billy Austin") are all but absent from Earle's 10th album. "Another Town" sounds like one of his students writing a Steve Earle road tune, the kind that would get creamed in a workshop. "The Galway Girl" is the same student trying to write a Pogues song. "The Boy Who Never Cried" rips off Loudon Wainwright's "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" but forgets to be funny or perceptive. Self-pity has never become Earle, and given the swipe at Del McCoury --"Remember, folks, there's no room for vulgarity in bluegrass" -- tacked onto "Until the Day I Die" (a passable, out-of-place bluegrass number), neither does sour grapes.
If Steve Earle has ever mattered, he has mattered when his songs have revealed and risked. Sometimes they still do. "Lonelier Than This" lays bare unfiltered fear, "Halo 'Round the Moon" finds solace in a delicate metaphor, and "Over Yonder" strikes a forgiving and forgiven tone. When the psychedelic storm breaks and the pat pop hooks subside, Transcendental Blues uncovers an introspective soul, a midlife meditation on failure, loss and insight without which neither the blues nor transcendence means much.