He's got enough ex-wives, arrests, empty bottles and drug recovery stories to inspire a hundred country tunes. But what makes Steve Earle such a magnificent songwriter—and Transcendental Blues one of the great country albums of this year—is how the darkness in his soul ignites such soaring, lovely songs. A process that perhaps inspired the last lines of the title track: "Back roads never carry you where you want 'em to/ They leave you standin' there with the ol' transcendental blues." Partially recorded in Ireland and produced by the twangtrust, the studio team (led by Earle) behind Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Blues reveals his restless musicality, with forays into Celtic and folk music and psychedelic rock, as in "Everyone's in Love with You," whose backwards-tape coda would fit on the Beatles' Revolver. Earle country, it seems, is as big as the whole outdoors.