Album Review: Joe Ely, Satisfied at Last
by j.poet for Country Music News International Magazine & Radio Show
published on May 31, 2011
Joe Ely – Satisfied at Last
(Rack’Em Records, 2011)
When Joe Ely stepped onto the national stage with his first self-titled MCA album in 1977, he was already a legend in his native Texas for his work with the Flatlanders, a band that also included Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, two other singer-songwriters who had a hard time fitting into the rigid categories of the music business. In a perfect world, Ely should have been a star, but as has often been written, he was too country for most rockers and too rock ‘n’ roll for most country fans. With 20/20 hindsight, one can see that Ely’s music and songwriting is as much folk as it is country and rock. In his songs, he tends to grapple with the cosmic issues of identity and the meaning of life. Even his straight-up honky tonk tunes have a hint of fatality that sets them apart from the sentiments of mainstream country hits.
Ely just turned 64, but on Satisfied at Last, he doesn’t sound much older than he did when he cut his aforementioned debut. The voice may be a bit rougher, but he can still hit those keening high notes, and his band still rocks out like a gang of hungry teenagers. The tunes here all deal with mortality, and Ely faces the subject head-on, sprinkling his tales with sharp observations on life’s pleasures and limitations with his usual touches of ironic humor. The opener, “The Highway is My Home”, rides a subtle beat that has hints of funk and reggae, suggested by Ely’s offbeat electric guitar accents.
Loss and limitation inform tunes like “Not That Much Has Changed”, the tale of a soldier returning form a war. Ely’s take on a subject that could have incited a series of clichés is written in a timeless style that invokes Iraq, Vietnam, or any war. Mexican flavored acoustic guitar and crying pedal steel intensify the lyric’s emotional content. The title track sums up a man’s life and concludes that true love is the only thing worth living and dying for. Ely sings it with all the passion that makes his music so compelling.
The album ends with three powerful tracks. The Texas reggae of “Roll Again” uses gambling as a metaphor for life’s uncertainties as Ely sings “Nobody’s satisfied, with the road that they chose to ride / Oh, let it go, roll again.” The laidback shuffle “I’m a Man Now” tips its hat to the Bo Diddley classic “I’m a Man”, but Diddley’s confidence is replaced by Ely’s self-reflective investigation of what it means to be male. “I’m not a kid,” he sings. “I done some things I never should have did.” David Holt complements Ely’s confessions with some icy Chicago style electric guitar fills.
“Circumstance”, written by Butch Hancock, is one of the best tunes Ely’s ever cut, a mystical cowboy song with a Zen-like lyric that celebrates mortality and the confusing chaos of life with a wink and a smile. Ely delivers a reverent vocal against fat, twangy guitar notes that reverberate like stars going supernova in an endless summer sky. It’s a stunning tune that brings the set on Satisfied at Last to a satisfying conclusion.