Steve Earle has never been afraid to wear his politics on his sleeve. From his work fighting against the death penalty to his more recent criticisms of the Bush administration, Earle has always spoken his mind.
And he’s never been afraid of controversy. On Jerusalem, the eloquent 2002 release that offered Earle’s view of America after the terror attacks of 9/11, he offered a look inside the head of John Walker Lindh (“John Walker’s Blues”), the so-called “American Taliban”, raising the ire of conservative groups who misunderstood his attempt to tell Lindh’s story as an endorsement of his politics.
He became a favorite target of the conservative talk radio crowd and was the subject of op-eds and criticism from politicians. But as Earle says on Just An American Boy, the documentary made of the European tour that followed, “Back home I have been accused of being unpatriotic, which doesn’t bother me very much mainly because I’m reasonably sure that my definition of patriotism and the definition of my accusers are pretty far apart.”
The Revolution Starts… Now picks up where Jerusalem left off, kicking off with a driving guitar and lyrically thumbing its nose at the American power structure. The Revolution Starts… Now is, essentially, Earle’s definition of patriotism writ large across a 11-song rock-and-country record.
The political intent of the album is clear from its packaging, which mixes artifacts from American culture and advertising with images that allude to the revolutionary Che Guevera. Earle includes a short essay in the liner notes in which he explains the political context surrounding the recording of the album, reminding us that the prisoner abuse scandal was just breaking and the 9/11 hearings were underway.
“The most important presidential election of our lifetime was less than seven months away and we desperately wanted to weigh in, both as artists and as citizens of a democracy,” he writes. “All but two of these songs were recorded within 24 hours of the first line hitting the paper. We worked 12- and 14-hour days and in between takes and over meals we talked about the war, the election, baseball, and women, in precisely that order.”
And the result is an album both aggressive and sly, one that rides on hard-edged guitars and tells the stories of the people not doing so well in George Bush’s America.
From the opening chords of the opening track, “The Revolution Starts Now” there is no doubt the Texan is on a mission. “The Revolution Starts Now” offers a simple lyric set over a grinding rock chord progression. “The revolution starts now / When you rise above your fear / And when you tear the walls around you down,” he sings, the guitar driving, “The revolution starts here / Where you work and where you play /Where you lay your money down / What you do and what you say / The revolution starts now / The revolution starts here.” It’s a simple statement of purpose, a political statement, a reminder that change is within our grasp, that we are the ones who must make it happen.
It is a powerful opening to the album, a positive opening, one that cuts past the cynicism of contemporary politics, the quickly narrowing sense of possibility generated by the current powers that be in Washington.
The rest of the disc is a surprising mix. There is the political — the pointed “Rich Man’s War”, “The Gringo’s Tale” and “F the CC” (you can guess what the target of this rocker is). There are stories of average folks (the country vamp, “Home to Houston”, tells the story of a trucker making his way back home after a difficult trip), stories of love (a tender love duet with Emmylou Harris that ranks with duets he has recorded with Lucinda Williams and Roseanne Cash).
There is humor. “Condi, Condi” is a love song to National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, one that slices through the artifice and Oprah-esque appearance. “People say you’re cold but I think you’re hot,” he sings, trying to get her to shake her body, to give him a whirl.
And there is the spiritually themed “Warrior” (a spoken word piece with lyrics based on Kenneth Branaugh’s film version of Henry V) and “The Seeker”. “The Seeker” is, as Earle told Kurt Orzeck in Ice magazine, “the obligatory state-of-me song that I end up with on every record - me taking a picture of where I am”. In it, the singer offers an explanation for the eternal optimism he holds, a bit of advise his granddaddy gave him when he was eight: “Whatever you do be a seeker.”
“In a world full of sorrow, hunger and pain / It’s so hard to explain why I’m still travelin’ / But there’s a new day tomorrow and maybe I’ll hold / Something brighter than gold to a seeker.”
This is a political year and, as Earle writes, we are faced with a historic chance to change the direction in which the United States is moving. The release of this record two and a half months before we have to enter the voting booths should offer solace and inspiration to those ready to act.
The revolution does start now.