Artful Politics 

Steve Earle's pointed new album trades slogans for stories to comment on the state of the world

Steve Earle's pointed new album trades slogans for stories to comment on the state of the world

Steve Earle

The Revolution Starts...Now (E-Squared/Artemis)

The real problem with Steve Earle's controversial song "John Walker's Blues" was not its politics, but its aesthetics.

The problem was not that Earle tried to crawl inside the head of the Marin County teenager turned Taliban fighter, but that he didn't get far enough inside. As an explanation for an American suburbanite joining a feudal desert war, "soda pop ads" is unconvincing, as are the character's lack of second thoughts. In interviews, Earle has discussed how Walker joined the world's most homophobic religion right after his father came out of the closet and how Walker is almost the same age as Earle's own son. Both observations would be intriguing elements in a song. Neither was in this song.

My problem with Earle's Jerusalem, the album that contained "John Walker's Blues," was not that my politics differ from his, but that they're essentially the same. I believe our democratic-socialist views deserve better representation than a heavy-handed rewrite of Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias," a cheap shot at our middle-class liberal allies and broad-brush sloganeering. Writing political songs, after all, is no different than writing love songs; you have to search out the neglected perspective, dig into the specifics and find the unexpected phrase. Earle, who may be one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation, knows that.

He remembers it on his new album, The Revolution Starts...Now, which is not only more political than Jerusalem but much better written as well. Despite its unfortunate title, Earle's new record leaves behind the vague generalities of Jerusalem for the sharply focused character studies that are his strength.

"Home to Houston," for example, is a classic hillbilly truck-driving song with a delicious twist. It opens with a twangy, low-pitched guitar hook, followed by Earle's best Texas drawl, sung through his nose. Once again, he has assumed the persona of "Bubba," the blue-collar kid who worked at a gas station in "Someday," who was losing the family farm on "The Rain Came Down" and who was drowning in bills on "Good Ol' Boy (Gettin' Tough)."

In the latest installment of his saga, Bubba's been driving tractor-trailers from Houston to L.A., when he jumps at the chance to make big bucks hauling a gas tanker for Halliburton in occupied Iraq. But when he finds himself in the desert with a bulletproof screen on his hood and an armored personnel carrier in his rearview mirror, he realizes too late that he'll never get to spend all the money he's making if he doesn't make it home alive. The song makes the political connection between money and blood; it sparkles with visual details; it crackles with tough-guy humor, and it discovers beneath that facade a sinking terror.

The next track, "Rich Man's War," provides a quick but sharp portrait of Jimmy, who could have been Bubba's nephew. Jimmy "joined the army / 'Cause he had no place to go / There ain't nobody hirin' 'round here / Since all the jobs went down to Mexico." Thinking the army was just a job, he's bewildered to find himself cradling a gun atop a truck outside Baghdad. If he's "just another poor boy off to fight a rich man's war," as Earle laments over a pretty Tex-Mex guitar figure, so is Ali, the kid on the Gaza Strip who is manipulated by a cynical ideologue into strapping on explosives beneath a shirt. Here, Earle grasps the insight he was groping for in "John Walker's Blues."

"The Gringo's Tale" is a monologue by an ex-CIA agent hiding from his old bosses in a Mexican cantina. Like Bubba, Jimmy and Ali, the Gringo was seduced by promises of adventure, patriotism and money and awoke to the truth too late. All these tales are parables for an American public that was promised one thing and delivered something else, but the songs hold our attention because they're stories, not speeches. Like all good stories, these songs feature recognizable characters in believable settings and make us want to know what happens next.

This is as true of the love songs as of the political songs. "Comin' Around," a honky-tonk duet with Emmylou Harris, is a Hank-like admission that the singer is just maybe ready to settle down.

The song is so cleverly constructed that the singer seems to be working harder to convince himself than to persuade his lover. "I Thought You Should Know" resembles a hillbilly Beatles ballad—marital angst and odd chord changes—as the singer warns a new lover that he's damaged goods.

The Revolution Starts...Now is not a perfect album. The title track is the kind of heavy-handed chest thumping that marred Jerusalem, and "Warrior" is a pretentious poetry recital that shows off a lot of grad-school vocabulary without ever engaging the listener. There's nothing subtle about "Condi, Condi," a reggae pledge of love to Condoleezza Rice, or "F the FCC," a profanity-laced rock 'n' roll romp about the Federal Communications Commission. But on these two songs, a lack of subtlety is appropriate, for they're over-the-top, unapologetic, laugh-out-loud comedy.

Whether Earle's artistic restlessness leads him into fertile patches like The Mountain or into such dead ends as Jerusalem, his willingness to try anything is admirable because he always returns with his new knowledge, as he has on this new CD, to country music. After all, this is an album with a truck-driving song, a cowboy-in-Mexico song, a hillbilly's-attempt-to-woo-a-rich-girl song, a crumbling-marriage song and a grandfather's-advice song. What could be more country than that?

The grandfather's advice is that the singer should always be "The Seeker." Over Byrdsian guitars, Earle sings in that nasal drawl that suggests what Bob Dylan might have sounded like if he had grown up near San Antonio. After an album full of lies swallowed and promises betrayed, this seeker still finds reason to look forward to "a new day tomorrow." Moreover, Earle is able—like Bob Marley, John Lennon, Johnny Cash and Sara Carter before him—to make that new day shine so brightly and so crisply that we believe it too.

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