If it wasn’t evident from the title of his new record, Washington Square Serenade, Steve Earle lives in New York now. And with this new album, he wants you to know it. Not just in the material, which is distinctly New York, but also in the album’s sound. These songs are more stripped down and bare than Earle’s already distinct stripped down, bare sound. Most of the album is some basic acoustic guitar, a bit of bass, Earle’s vocals and drum machines. Yes, drum machines.
Clearly looking for that New York sound, Earle passed on using his long-time backing band the Dukes in lieu of drum loops on a number of these songs. For the most part, the simple drum loops match up nicely. “Tennessee Blues” kicks off the album with a bouncing acoustic guitar over a drum machine as Earle talks again, like he did 21 years ago, about leaving Guitar Town. Although now, when he sings “Goodbye, Guitar Town”, it’s pretty clear he’s intent on not going back. The Steve Earle listeners are exposed to on this album isn’t content, necessarily, but he’s not talking too much about ramblin’.
In fact this new musical metropolis he’s produced on Washington Square Serenade might not be that different from his old work. Essentially it’s the folk without the southern sweat, but it actually makes some of his old habits more effective. The spoken word verses of “Down Here Below” seem more like the poetry of a poised street wanderer in this musical New York, where as earlier spoken word tunes in the Earle cannon just sounded rambling. “City of Immigrants” is a brilliant piece that sounds totally at home at a street festival as Earle, backed by band Forro in the Dark, delivers a catchy, downright joyful homage to New York’s diversity (though it does end by falling into the less celebratory, more preachy “All of us are immigrants”).
Not all of the new elements are working for Steve, however. The drum machines, while a fresh touch to his sound, are often too simple. “Come Home to Me” could be a heartbreaking ballad a la “Lonelier Than This” from Trancendental Blues. But instead, the plain high-hat-bass-snare drum loop makes the song sound a little too close to soft rock for someone as good as Earle. “Satellite Radio” has the same sort of disposable feel, and while it could be a theme song for his new radio show (yes, on satellite), one wonders if it is strong enough to be on this album. The electronic elements here (for lack of a better term) might have worked better if Earle had looked back to his excellent Transcendental Blues. That album is a straight-up country record, but here and there, particularly on the title track, are just the faintest touches of atmospherics. It sets a mood that carries throughout the album. But songs like “Satellite Radio” break the movement of the Washington Square Serenade, because they point out the absence of the Dukes.
That song is particularly frustrating because there are so many other great songs, especially in the record’s second half. “Oxycontin Blues”, “Red is the Color”, and “Steve’s Hammer (For Pete)” all run back-to-back and are as powerful a string of songs as Earle has ever produced. “Oxycontin Blues” manages to chronicle a family history of blue-collar beatdowns (both from Dad and the company store) and addiction — the narrator claims he won’t drink whiskey ’cause it made Daddy mean, so Oxycontin, sadly, is his escape of choice. “Red is the Color” is a hard laboring apocalyptic trance that, like “Oxycontin”, has a build so subtle that you don’t realize it’s building until the song cuts out and ends and you’re left with all that tension in your shoulders. Both songs also use things like mandolin and harmonica and bring Earle back to the elements with which he shines.
Smartly, Earle veered away from the protesting of his last two, very solid records. But that didn’t stop him from including “Steve’s Hammer (For Pete)”, a protest song about not protesting anymore. An obvious tribute to Pete Seeger, its a thumping roots rock song and as Earle sings, “One of these days / I’m gonna lay this hammer down” and claims as the song goes on that once war is over and unions are strong, he can stop singing angry songs, someday. At the end of the song, he brings in a whole slew of back-up singers and altogether they sing the chorus and it becomes this great convergence of solidarity and utter frustration. Neither Earle nor any of his peers are going to ever lay their hammer down, and it is that knowledge floating around in the back of the track that makes it all the more powerful, and a definitive high point on the record.
It’d certainly be interesting to hear some of these songs with a live band behind him, and maybe that’ll happen on tour, but drum loop questions aside, Earle has come at us with another solid album that further cements his place in modern music as one of the great songwriters still swingin’ his hammer.