STEVE Earle has always been a country boy at heart, although his extraordinary drinking, drug-taking and womanising might make even the hardest Nashville star blanch.

So it is no surprise that Earle, after flirting with other genres, has released a quintessential country album, which echoes the ground-breaking work of Gram Parsons and Gene Clark, but also pays homage to more traditional country icons like Willy Nelson, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Consequently, So You Wannabe An Outlaw is arguably his finest work since that blistering classic anti-war tirade, The Revolution Starts Now.

Earle’s world-weary, ravaged voice is perfectly suited to ballads such as News From Colorado, a desperately sad take on the disintegration of the American Dream, and This Is How It Ends, a bittersweet look at the end of a marriage, sung in perfect harmony with Miranda Lambert, and clearly a reflection of his break-up with Allison Moorer.

You Broke My Heart comes from the same school of lost love and heartache, the staple of the country scene, but is given added poignancy by Earle’s sensitive lyrics and fragile, aching vocals.

But proper outlaws don’t just cry into their whisky and moan about their pain. They also like to rock – and the spirit of Guitar Town, Earle’s first coruscating album, released 31 years ago, is present in much of the first half of the album. Powered by Earle’s rumbling Telecaster and lonesome growl, tracks like The Firebreak Line and Fixin’ To Die crackle and soar.

So You Wannabe An Outlaw is a crucial album in the long and varied Steve Earle catalogue, a reflection on, and tribute to, his Nashville past, while at the same time confronting those eternal problems of love, loneliness and loss, problems that he knows only too well.

Highly recommended.