Featured Music: Wednesday, January 16, 2003
Don’t think that someone, somewhere, hasn’t already said or implied this: “Earle in 2004!”

on’t think that someone, somewhere, hasn’t already said or implied this: “Earle in 2004!”

Yes, the “Earle” in question would be Steve, de facto oligarch of the nation of Nation readers. The singer-songwriter pushes hot buttons with the same enthusiasm and unchecked passion that Stephen King brings to a QWERTY keyboard. He’s praised by the libertarian left (and some people who actually have jobs) chiefly for using his music and his stature in the biz to rant or, when feeling particularly gracious, poetically comment on societal ills — consumerism, HMOs, Big Brother, occupying death row when you have no business being there, conspiracy theories. If it’s a leftist grievance, it either has been or will someday be a Steve Earle lyric. Guar-on-teed.

It used to be that listening to Earle was something you did while speeding along unpaved, poorly lit roads on the way to a cockfight, with a bottle of Beam in your hand. Now, opening your ears to his passive-aggressiveness initiates you into an elite group of jaded, refined, sarsaparilla-swigging Bill of Righters (a.k.a. ex-rednecks) and their Knob Creek-downing northern sympathizers (a.k.a. reformed hillbillies). Earle has one foot in the horse manure, the other in the New York Times editorial page. His latest c.d., Jerusalem, sounds like something a River-era Bruce Springsteen might have recorded while making virtual love to an mp3 virus named “Mike Wallace” — a little gruff, a little rock-ish, but not as irrepressible as the whiz-bang techno bash in the background or as digestible as the leftist politics up front.

Earle is probably best known for his affiliation with the No Depression movement of the mid-1990s. The musicians who accounted for this retro phenomenon believed that Nashville had stretched so far in one grandiose, lucrative direction that everything the town ostensibly stood for, from good music to grits, was vanishing from sight. They then all unwittingly bought into the idea of creating an “old-fashioned” neo-Nashville, made out of Waylon and Hag’s spare parts. And while the overriding ethos of the movement was one of “celebrate good times, c’mon,” there was a sense of frustration that pervaded the scene. It was like, “If this is the best we can do — a few little shitty write-ups in a rag with a circulation of, like, 23, and some airplay on college radio — we ain’t trying hard enough.” Earle and his ilk managed to separate themselves from the rest of the ND boys by landing finely calibrated, hard-rockish jabs at the good ol’ American Way, that hydra-headed Master who was sitting up in his throne, farting boy bands repeatedly and without warning as he slaked his thirst on the proverbial drink of dreams.

Earle has taken the lefty flag and, with Jerusalem, run farther with it than any of his brothers in arms. His penchant for being relevant comes through in the production wizardry that laces the disc — Steve isn’t just talking the talk, he’s walking the walk. Jerusalem crackles with muted beats that could be coming from banged-up trashcan lids, crisply fuzzed-out gee-tar lines, sparkling electric piano riffs, and moody atmospherics. Venturing deep into the uncharted terrain of “contemporary” songcraft allows Earle to sing-talk his way out of his sometimes mixed metaphors: You might not care what the hell he’s actually saying when you hear how authoritative and engaging his distorted vocals sound. “Four score and a hundred fifty years ago our / Forefathers made us equal as long as we can pay,” Earle raps, basically, on “Amerika v. 6.0,” over a foot-stomping rhythm, replete with what sound like hand claps, as a gritty Rolling Stones-ish guitar melody jangles overhead. “Yeah, well maybe that wasn’t exactly what they was / Thinkin’ version six-point-o of the American way.” What in the hell’s “six-point-o of the American way,” anyway? Answer: Dudn’t matter. It’s the delivery that counts, and, here, it’s as good as it gets: Strong and sloppy all at once, forceful sentiment couched in slacker ’tude (which is what the kids are buying nowadays, anyway). Can Steve get an “Amen”?!?

What Jerusalem lacks in maturity, however, it makes up for in purposefulness: Like a Spielberg movie, this disc is the product of someone with a personal artistic vision. It’s obvious on a song like “The Truth” that Earle the songwriter really doesn’t care whether or not you share his belief that prisons are (somehow) bad; he wouldn’t have written the song if he did. All that seems to matter to him is the fact that the song comes across as a somber character study of a man doing time. Like a Shakespearean actor, Earle inhabits the lyrics, even effecting a southern accent that’s more pronounced than the one he normally sings with. Within the mid-tempo beat of tom-toms being gently teased and the haunting backdrop of an slightly off-center banjo, Earle, in character, asks God to forgive the prison guard nearby while, in the same breath, warning God that this guard better not “turn his back on me.” And, boom, just like that, we can identify and empathize with this inmate, someone who’s apparently as mixed-up and confused as the rest of us. Don’t ya know, it takes one helluva songwriting pen to essay this way.

There are a lot of polished performances here — the Middle-Eastern refrain of Earle’s apology for that Talibastard we all love to hate, John Walker Lindh (“John Walker’s Blues”); the good-timey rumble of the song he co-wrote with Sheryl Crow, “Go Amanda”; and the plaintive sway of his duet with Emmylou Harris, “I Remember You.” No matter his pose, Earle creates vivid narratives out of colloquialisms and sharply polished rock vibes. He paints himself as a patriot, but Earle may actually be the alt-country equivalent of Ralph Nader, a constitutionalist with a deep suspicion of this place we all call “The Real” Holy Land.

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