Whoever called Steve Earle the Michael Moore of alt-country was on to something: Earle recorded some of his most provocative music in the years after Sept. 11. On “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” his first disc of original material since George W. Bush left office, he sounds both bereft and relieved.
If Earle is the ultimate firebrand, Emmylou Harris is the ultimate flame-tender, as even-keeled as Earle is pugnacious. Her new disc, “Hard Bargain,” is . . . well, it’s an Emmylou Harris record. It’s lovely and understated and will only further Harris’s reputation as a paragon of gentle dignity and forbearance. She can’t seem to help it.
“I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” (also the title of Earle’s new novel, out in a few weeks) is, as Earle’s albums often are, animated by rage, regret and love in equal measure. “Little Emperor” is a musical companion to the long-ago “Copperhead Road” and a lyrical (“No more pomp and circumstance / No more shock and awe / You’re just a little emperor that’s all”) companion to just about any of the other Bush 43 songs in Earle’s canon. “Heaven or Hell” is an excellent duet with his wife, country singer Allison Moorer; “Gulf of Mexico” is a rueful but rollicking examination of last year’s oil spill.
Earle’s last few records have pinballed from roots to rock to Irish folk. His last record of original material, “Washington Square Serenade,” featured hip-hop-style beats courtesy of a Dust Brother, which proved too much for many alt-country purists. Coincidentally or not, “Alive,” made under the watchful eye of producer T-Bone Burnett, is as understated and nearly immaculate a country-ish rock record as Earle has made in years. There’s less clutter, less haranguing pamphlets masquerading as songs and more thoughtful tracks, such as “This City,” a post-Katrina ballad that doubles as an unofficial theme song for the HBO series “Treme,” on which Earle occasionally appears.
“Hard Bargain” has a Big Easy lament of its own, the mild, wistful “New Orleans.” Harris came late to songwriting, spending the first few decades of her career as an interpreter. She favors naturalistic fare, such as the opening track “The Road,” which is possibly the frankest examination yet of Harris’s relationship with mentor Gram Parsons (“So I took what you left me / Put it to some use / Went looking for an answer / With those three chords and the truth”).
Unlike Earle, who is most comfortable when settling into someone else’s skin, Harris’s character studies don’t always ring true. “My Name Is Emmett Till,” a first-person recounting of the infamous tale of the African American boy murdered in 1950s Mississippi, starts off awkward (“I was born a black boy / . . . I walked this Earth for 14 years / Then one night I was killed”) and goes downhill from there, inexplicably mild where it should rage. It’s hard not to wonder what Earle, who seems to possess not an ounce of mildness in his entire body, would have done with it instead.
Recommended tracks: “Waitin’ on the Sky,” “Heaven or Hell,” “Gulf of Mexico” (Earle); “The Road,” “Goodnight Old World” (Harris)