Artists tend to work over safety nets that appear suspiciously like a charred mattress, hose-soaked at the edge of an unmowed lawn, a crowd on the corner standing and pointing. Reasons to fail, these are. Reasons to quit, to borrow from Willie Nelson. Excuses. There's safety in that, and a deep hole; if you haven't the freedom to fuck up, neither do you have the room to succeed. And if the rest of the world doesn't like your art, well, you can always point to the mattress and remind them where you sleep. Up to now Steve Earle has always had an excuse for artistic failure, though that has rarely been his lot. In the mid-'70s he came to Nashville an outsider, an angry young man who just ached to be misunderstood so he could bust up the room with his song, or whatever else came to hand. Then he became a drug addict, another caricature in the sad myth of the tortured artist. It is somehow fitting that "Copperhead Road", the most constant musical reminder of those days and his best-selling song, comes perilously close to a parody of Hank Williams Jr. Then jail, and redemption. Train A Comin' was a bruised miracle, I Feel Alright a triumph. All right, a Harley, a resounding and uniquely American success, every bit the equal to John Hiatt's landmark Bring the Family. But what next? For the first time in his career Steve Earle stands utterly exposed, naked, with no place to hide his talent and no mercy due were it unaccountably to fail him. Doubtless his latest is not named El Corazon to fit the needs of this metaphor, but there is a sense in which the years and the living, the writing and the hard looking do force him to the heart of the matter: Whatta ya got, really got? The goods. Steve Earle has the goods. Faced with what is arguably the most difficult creative challenge of his career (witness: Hiatt, Zevon, et al.), Earle's third on the comeback trail plays as if it were just that easy. It's not that easy, of course, but Earle has -- by design or discovery -- placed himself at the center of creative foment. The E-Squared hothouse allows him to nurture young bands, to produce, to listen, to teach, to learn, and constantly exposes him to a wide range of musical ideas. And, minus that mattress at last, he is a house afire, writing and producing and playing at a rate that belies his 42 years. God help him if he ever stops. Minus the themes of survival and redemption that provided the central images of I Feel Alright, El Corazon is expressly about nothing so much as Earle's rambling, unquenchable joy in the making of music. (The devil, as promised from the stage last tour, even takes a holiday from his lyrics.) Know him by the company he keeps, which over a dozen songs includes Emmylou Harris, the Del McCoury Band, the Fairfield Four, the Supersuckers, and Siobhan Kennedy. It's hard to imagine any other artist capable of so naturally knitting each of those disparate sounds to the needs of his own muse. A colleague argues that this makes of Earle a synthesist, not an innovator. Maybe so, but his is a uniquely American voice, and both thematically and musically he is able to reach down and squeeze hard the core of our synthetic American soul. Kinda like CPR for Music Row, y'know? El Corazon opens quietly with "Christmas in Washington", just Earle and his collection of stringed friends, with co-producer Ray Kennedy adding a shaker for percussion. Like "Ellis Unit One", it is striking both in its simplicity and -- in a time and place of lockstep conservatism -- its politics. The angry young man has aged, but not without courage, not without keeping his heart and eyes open (Earle's vacation in the ghetto probably taught him more about race relations in the South than I'll ever know), and if he hasn't found wisdom yet, he at least has the scent of the thing. Perhaps one must live in the Mid-South to appreciate just how inflammatory Earle's invocation of Woody Guthrie plays where he lives (and beautifully: "Tear your eyes from paradise/And rise again somehow"). Wishing for the return of notorious communists Emma Goldman and old Joe Hill, civil rights activists Malcom X and Martin Luther King -- well, that just isn't done. Not here. Their dreams have been discredited, we live in a service economy, god bless the child who's got his own. The unions have been busted The proud red banners torn To listen to the radio You'd think it all was well But you and me and Cisco know It's going straight to hell (Cisco, by the way is Cisco Houston, Guthrie's longtime traveling partner.) The words come in the short, almost weary bursts, Earle's recent trademark, as if a deep breath would carry him to places he dare not visit. That does not make El Corazon a political record any more than it makes Earle a political songwriter suited to sharing the stage with Billy Bragg. He reveals, instead, a continuing instinct for unflinching courage as songwriter, observer, and performer. And, especially in his songs about romance (say, "Poison Lovers", a bittersweet duet with Siobhan Kennedy), he is as hard on himself as anyone. A couple other songs ("Telephone Road" with the Fairfield Four; "N.Y.C." with the Supersuckers, cut just after Earle toured with Neil Young) return to the ennui and desperation of small-town America, a theme that has served Earle well since Guitar Town. He hasn't lost a step. "You Know the Rest", written in an English hotel room, is the kind of charmingly veiled rhapsody that made Roger Miller famous, with some of that edge Earle can never quite keep sheathed. But the real treat is Earle's collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, "I Still Carry You Around". (He also duets with Ronnie McCoury on "You Know the Rest.") Earle said recently that he might next do an entire album with the McCoury Band; here's hoping he does, because this one song hits the sweet spot dead on. The concluding "Ft. Worth Blues" brings matters full circle, a simple, short guitars and percussion number that serves as Earle's homage to Townes Van Zandt. Like the album's dedication ("To Townes, see you when I get there, maestro"), it is replete with the brusque tenderness that makes Earle such a complicated and compelling singer. In short, El Corazon is a wonderfully rewarding, constantly engaging album. It is not the best record of Steve Earle's career (I think that's still coming, which seems the best sign of all), nor does it seek to be. It is simply proof of Earle's sustained excellence, in itself a rare virtue and, in this era of one-album careers, a remarkable feat. With or without the net.