A sequel, more than just in title, to 2007’s Dirt Farmer, Levon Helm’s Electric Dirt continues the artist’s reflective summarizing of his musical past. Where the previous album found him offering scrappy takes on the traditional folk standards of his Southern upbringing, this album re-approaches the style of his work with the Band, going electric and punching up the energy. The songs are new but have the worn familiarity of something pulled from storage, all the trilling organs and honky-tonk shuffles, made thinner and more poignant by the passage of time.
Helm continues employing the Southern everyman character he pioneered with the Band, manifold and many-voiced but always under similar circumstances and trying to stay proud while pressed by forces beyond his control. There’s now an added air of tired experience in these characters, from the amiable old drunk of “Tennessee Jed” to the defeated farmer of “Growing Trade,” tinged with an added measure of wistful sadness. Still recovering from a struggle with throat cancer in the late ‘90s, Helm’s voice has a strained hoarseness that befits the material, deepening its grizzled creases with every creak.
Yet these songs are far from solemn, digging up joyful colors in even the most depressing of places. The jaunty marches of “King Fish” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” are expressly celebratory, with gospel backing and lilting horns. Even the morose “When I Go Away” takes a measure of comfort in death, taking in the past while looking steadfast toward the future, summing up voice of an artist who, while clearly concerned with placing a crowning cap on his career, is still very much alive.