The world of rock ‘n’ roll needs rabble-rousers, especially these days. In the year following September 11, 2001, we’ve been subjected to a small handful of memorable songs inspired by the tragedy, a lovely televised tribute to the victims and heroes, a massively-hyped concept album that just falls short of expectations, and most embarrassingly, tons and tons of poorly written, jingoistic songs that pander to the mass audience. Songs by icons Paul McCartney and Neil Young sound like they were both written in five minutes, and basically say nothing at all. Country star Alan Jackson’s song “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” comes close to succeeding, but in the end he chickens out, opting for narrow, country-bumpkin sentiment (“I’m not sure I could tell you the difference in Eye-raq and Eye-ran”). And of course, there’s one Toby Keith, whose extreme right-wing proselytizing in “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” is frightening, both in its content and its popularity. It seems that most artists are hiding behind political correctness, expressing sympathy for victims (justifiably so), but staying far away from much tougher issues; after all, middle-of-the-road sells more records. Fortunately, we can rely on Steve Earle, a guy who would never turn down a chance to tell it like it is, to step in with his own persnickety thoughts on the whole situation.
Back in 1989, Neil Young’s brilliant “Rockin’ in the Free World” served as his own State of the World Address; today, Jerusalem is Steve Earle’s. Some folks might be led to believe that Earle’s new album is entirely devoted to the New York terrorist attacks, but in reality, that’s only a small portion of the subject matter. Yes, it’s a bit of a concept album, but not in the sense that Springsteen’s The Rising is, and it’s nowhere near as long-winded. In a surprisingly quick and snappy 36 minutes, Earle talks about the world he sees when he looks out his window: that horrifying day in the fall of 2001, disillusioned young people, man’s inhumanity to man in the prison system, Mexican illegal immigrants, and the Middle East. In his eloquent liner notes (always a highlight of a Steve Earle album), he says that America’s democratic society “was built to last but only if properly maintained”, and the way Earle sees it, to steal a line from Charles Bukowski, the captain is out to lunch and the sailors have taken over the ship.
By now you’ve heard, or read about the furor generated by the conservative media surrounding Earle’s song “John Walker’s Blues”. An emotionally wrenching, traditional American ballad told from the viewpoint of captured American member of the Taliban, John Walker Lindh, the song accomplishes two things that have not yet been done in popular music this past year; that is, to dare to put a human face on a man the government wants us to hate, and secondly, to do so in such astonishing, beautiful fashion. What Earle points out in the song is that John Walker Lindh is “just an American boy raised on MTV”, who grew more and more isolated by today’s pop culture (“I’ve seen all those kids in the soda pop ads / But none of ‘em looked like me”) before heading off to Yemen to become a Muslim (“The first thing I heard that made sense was the word / Of Mohammed, peace be upon him”). The beat of the song is funereal, and Earle’s voice sounds tired and sad; later on, guitarist Eric Ambel channels the distorted, anguished guitar strains of Kurt Cobain to deliver a solo that’s just as sad and mournful as anything we’ve heard in the past few years. Earle is trying to tell us that this was a regular kid-next-door who fell in with fanatics, a young man with a long life ahead of him, and now he’s being made a scapegoat. Lindh may not be innocent by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s a human being, something certain people don’t want the rest of us to realize. In the song’s chorus, Earle sings the line “A shadu la ilaha illa Allah”, which literally means, “there is no God but God.” Christians, Jews, and Muslims all pray to the same God, but that fact has been lost by people on all sides of the fence.
The other song directly influenced by September 11th, “Ashes to Ashes”, opens Jerusalem, and it’s the customary gritty, country-rock fare we’ve come to expect from Earle since 1988’s Copperhead Road. The raw guitar strains and shrill drum sound add a feeling of doom to a song that meditates on the aftermath of that horrible morning: “Someday even man’s best laid plans / Will lie twisted and covered in rust / When we’ve done all that we can but it slipped through our hands.” Earle and his band pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and get down to brass tacks on the next track, “America v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)”, with Earle adding a talking blues feel to the weighty tune, snidely singing about such topics as the current cultural malaise, the trouble with HMOs, and the futile war on drugs. “Conspiracy Theory” combines a funky bassline, a drum loop, and distorted guitar with a darkly humorous dialogue between Earle and Irish singer Siobhan Maher-Kennedy. Earle wonders aloud if things in the world are even worse than they seem, and Maher-Kennedy sings sultrily, hypnotically, “Now take it or leave it / Go back to bed now don’t you cry.”
Recorded originally for a charity album for the Free the West Memphis Three cause (regarding three young Arkansas men who were wrongly convicted of murder), the old-fashioned country of “The Truth” addresses the unending problem of building too many prisons for people who are only threats to themselves (“For every wall you build around your fear / A thousand darker things are born in here”). The jaunty, Doug Sahm-like “What’s a Simple Man to Do?” describes the desperation of a Mexican man who lost his job in one of the many oppressive, foreign-owned assembly plants called maquiladoras. And just when you expect Jerusalem to end on a somber note, Earle surprises you with the uplifting title track, in which he shows genuine optimism, believing all Holy Wars will end.
Four songs on Jerusalem are more standard Steve Earle fare, but are excellent enough not to bog down the album too much. There’s the usual sensitive-guy ballad (“The Kind”), the cool road song (“Shadowlands”), the generic rocker (“Go Amanda”), and the requisite love song duet (“I Remember You”, featuring Emmylou Harris). With the exception of “Go Amanda”, a good-but-ordinary track co-written by Sheryl Crow, these songs hold their own, especially “I Remember You” (a duet with Emmylou Harris can never be bad).
Actually, Jerusalem is the most musically focused Steve Earle album in ages. Previous CDs like El Corazon and Transcendental Blues were stylistically all over the map, but Jerusalem has more of a consistent feel, and much of the credit goes to Earle’s backing band, the Dukes. Guitarist Ambel, bassist Kelley Looney, and drummer Will Rigby nail perfectly the gloriously ragged sound of Crazy Horse, but with 10 times the musical chops, and all members shine on each track (excluding “Conspiracy Theory”, where Earle plays all instruments).
Steve Earle has always been a guy who is never afraid to shoot his mouth off, and with Jerusalem, his timing is perfect, as his own razor-sharp words slice through the shallow slop of almost all 9-11-inspired music that has come out to date. As cantankerous as he can be, though, Earle is refreshingly optimistic while still retaining a sense of dignity (you hear that, Macca?), and the feeling of hope that ends the album is what eventually wins you over. Every time I hear the last bars of the title track, I’m reminded of a line by poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Steve Earle seems to think so.