Outlasting the Blues (1979) features Arlo Guthrie on the cover with a saxophone, a bad but unrepresentative sign. Inside he offers some of the most searching — of self, society and spirit — lyrics he ever wrote. “In the event of my demise,” he starts, “Be sure to include this statement.” Over the course of these eleven songs, culminating in an exquisite version of Hoyt Axton’s “Evangelina”, that statement defines what will last: words and music made out of charitable love, the kind St. Paul celebrated.
As Dylan turned to a fundamentalesque Christianity, Guthrie turned to a mystical (yet progressive) Catholicism, and, as in a Graham Greene novel, a committed spiritual gravity deepens his vision. “Wedding Song” is a classic, a soul-restorative melody, a love lyric that counts, and an arrangement — lushly and sensitively handled by Shenandoah’s David Grover, Dan Velika, Steve and Carol Ide, and Terry A La Berry — that captures the agape Guthrie celebrates.
Had the production been so consistently supple, Outlasting The Blues would be a classic. Often the string arrangements, guitar parts/tones, and backing vocals are overblown and very ’70s. Berry’s drumming, especially, is scattershot and sloppy.
If Guthrie never attained the change-your-life revelation that Dylan did with his best autobiographical and religious material, or cut as close to every man’s truth as Woody could, he often wrote better melodies. Power Of Love (1981) contains two good ones in “Slow Boat” and the reggae-ified “Living Like A Legend”. These are original folk songs of maturity and self-understanding, their spirituality intimated rather than asserted.
They are also the album’s only two originals. The rest are well-chosen covers, including T Bone Burnett’s title song, Richard Thompson’s “When I Get To The Border”, Erving Burgess’ “Jamaica Farewell” and Jimmy Webb’s “Oklahoma Nights” (the only clunker being David Mallett’s “Garden Song”, a hippie-in-the-garden nursery rhyme).
Production, as on Outlasting The Blues, is rather dated. The strings seem canned, and every arrangement has at least one or two too many instruments (at least the rhythm section of Russ Kunkel and Bob Glaub rocks). But judging this twofer by the songs and Arlo’s always unpretentious, wirey delivery, you’ll find much worth savoring and saving.