Everything in a person’s life, James Baldwin once wrote, “depends upon how that life accepts its limits.” This is especially easy to appreciate when we think of recording artists, the greatest of whom almost always are significantly limited but have embraced the uniqueness of their limitations in order to create distinctive art. Even the finest singers cannot sing in just any old way they might choose, after all, and this is a condition as true of Pavarotti as it is of, say, Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash.
Or Joe Ely. On Streets Of Sin, Joe Ely’s sixteenth album and his first studio project under his own name in over six years, the west Texan’s limitations as a singer and songwriter are the same as they ever were, and as singular. Inevitably, some of these are biological. Narrow in range and confined to but a handful of phrasing options, Ely’s flatland twang is, thanks precisely to those circumscriptions, instantly identifiable.
Other distinguishing qualities result from the particulars of Ely’s history and environment. The album begins, for instance, with “Fightin’ For My Life”, which skips headlong to a beat reminiscent of another Lubbock native, Buddy Holly; includes backing vocals by fellow Flatlander Butch Hancock, who wrote the song; and features harp interjections that sound like they could’ve been blown by another old friend, Bruce Springsteen.
No doubt springing from some unidentifiable intertwining of his nature and nurture, the melodies that Ely has written or chosen to sing have, for a quarter century now, sounded nearly always faintly familiar, sometimes even explicitly recycled: The new “All That You Need” is yet another use of his “Me And Billy The Kid” (itself a reworking of Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts”, and a predecessor to Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes On Forever”). The point, however, is that none of these limitations are weaknesses, or at least not merely weaknesses. In the unbending acceptance of himself — his approach has been altered only in the most superficial ways through the years — Ely has honed the very strengths that make him stand out.
All this discussion of limits is prompted by the subject matter of the stories Ely tells. Again and again on Streets Of Sin, he sings of men and women who hit the road to escape the limits of their lives, whether inherited or created, only to find that they can’t shake the past any more than they could shed the skin from their bones. In “A Flood On Our Hands”, as moving a ballad as Ely has cut since his initial pair of releases (1977′s self-titled debut and the following year’s Honky Tonk Masquerade), he worries about a sister who “ain’t been herself since she lost little Dwight.” In the slinky recitation “Carnival Bum”, a man hits the road at the end of the season in search of a lover, only to wind up right back where he started in the spring. Elsewhere, characters run cars off of bridges or sweat it out in fields they no longer own.
“I’m on the run again,” Ely declares on the album’s second track, pausing to relate a litany of the conditions he’ll never outpace. Then he’s off once more, his limits breathing forever down his sunburned neck, but also pushing him on.