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“Meanwhile, I’m Still Thinking”

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While so many writers cobble together their end-of-the-year Top Ten lists, I thought I’d some time revisiting a CD that received its fair share of attention last fall: Steve Earle’s Jerusalem (Artemis Records). The alt-country singer/songwriter earned press – and the reactionary indignation of at least one Nashville deejay – by releasing a disc of left-leaning political screeds. Number One With A Bullet on the kneejerks’ hate list: “John Walker’s Blues,” a first person account of the American-born Taliban soldier that commits the unforgivable sin of attempting to look at J.W. Lindh empathetically.
One of the central ironies of the last year has been the way that ultra- and neo-con spokesfolk (after years of decrying the so-called oppressions of leftie political correctness) started heavily wielding their own version of the p-c club as a means of stifling debate about the War on Terror. Considering Earle’s political proclivities and his own willingness to openly express ’em, it’s not surprising to see the man winding up a target for these folks. Okay for John Anderson or Charlie Daniels to engage in good ol’ American chest-thumping, but clearly it’s traitorous for Earle to even attempt to imagine what John Walker might be thinking.
Jerusalem is not a Grade-A Earle album: been playing & replaying the thing all week, and the overriding sense I get is of a singer so overly concerned w./ the message of his songs that he’s unwilling to really cut loose on ’em. (This is most apparent on the Tex-Mex numbers, which could’ve used a touch of Joe “King” Carasco to make ’em take off.) Most of the disc’s players, like former dBs drummer Will Rigby, will be familiar to Earle fans, though the more subdued use of their talents is a disappointment.
But even lesser Earle has its moments. I keep hearing comparisons to minor Dylan releases like Desire (which gave us both a protest song about “Hurricane” Carter and a puzzling folkie paean to thuggish mobster “Joey” Gallo), a disc that’s weathered much better than I would’ve expected on its ’75 release.

Fringe pop has had a long noble history of nurturing lyrical cranks & risk-takers. (One of my personal faves – a singer/songwriter who shares a vocal affinity w./ Earle – is T-Bone Burnett, the fire-and-brimstone evangelical songwriter also responsible for the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?) Earle, in stepping out on a limb that most sensible commercial songwriters would’ve avoided, is simply holding true to that tradition. Ya don’t like the sentiments he’s expressing, than stick to mainstream Nashville.
Alterna-country & roots rock both hearken back to the folkie stream that’s helped feed popular music from the beginning. One of the standing traditions of folk music is the bandit song: a tale told from the perspective of someone outside the law. “John Walker’s Blues” clearly fits within that mode. In Earle’s take, we hear a confused kid trying to bolster himself as he’s being carried back to the “land of the infidel;” the song uses religious chanting as a chorus and a means of showing the ways righteousness can support dark deeds. The singer returns to this point in the disc’s title song, only less indirectly: “I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school.”
Took some time before I actually started parsing the lyrics on this disc, and for all their vaunted political messages, I found most of ’em frustratingly generic: more John Mellancamp than Neil Young. Best poli-screed to these ears was “America v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do),” an angry & fatalistic talking blues rant that describes living paycheck-to-paycheck in a settle-for-2nd-best economy. I’d love to hear the song performed by a singer w./ more bite. Hey, Jon Langford, you busy?
Perhaps Jerusalem‘s biggest problem is one of timing. Released in the shadow of Bruce Springsteen’s post-9/11 take, The Rising, the disc can’t help but sound tenuous. Listen to The Boss’ comeback album, and you hear a man rediscovering the blunt power of his own voice and his unmatchable back-up band. Even if the disc has just as many nebulous lyrics as Earle’s release (and I believe it does), it sure as heck sounds it’s telling us more. In contrast, for all the outcry it’s aroused, Jerusalem could’ve benefited from at least another week in the recording studio. I’m bettin’ a lot of these songs’ll rise up on-stage, though . . .

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
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