"I ain't ever satisfied," Steve Earle sang back in 1987. Fifteen years later, the singer once tagged "the Hillbilly Bruce Springsteen" is seething with post-9/11 anger and discontent. In the press notes to Jerusalem, his most politically charged album, Earle writes, "This is a political record because there seems no other proper response to the place we're at now. But I'm not trying to get myself deported or something. In a big way this is the most pro-American record I've ever made."
That may well be, but Jerusalem, despite its strengths, can be annoyingly preachy. The disc kicks off with the angry "Ashes to Ashes," which compares America to a dinosaur headed for extinction ("Nobody lives forever/Nothin' stands the test of time"). He blasts baby-boomer political apathy in "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)" ("I remember when we was both out on the boulevard talkin' revolution and singin' the blues/Nowadays letters to the editor and cheatin' on our taxes is the best that we can do"), and he rails against government secrecy in "Conspiracy Theory" ("Once you've added every little lie together/You finally find the truth was always waiting there").
By contrast, the album's most controversial song, "John Walker's Blues," succeeds largely because it steers clear of political sloganeering. Slammed by conservative Nashville talk-show hosts and New York Post scribes before it was even released, Earle's song about John Walker Lindh neither condemns nor glorifies the 21-year-old Californian, who pleaded guilty to fighting alongside the Taliban. Rather, it's an attempt to get inside Lindh's head and figure out what propelled him to do what he did.
"I'm just an American boy -- raised on MTV," Earle -- in the voice of Lindh -- sings in a pained whisper over an acoustic guitar and throbbing drumbeat. "And I've seen all those kids in the soda-pop ads/But none of 'em looked like me/So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim/And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word/Of Mohammed, peace be upon him." Earle may be sympathetic to Lindh, but he doesn't exactly laud him for turning his back on his country.
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The artist would no doubt disagree, but the best songs on Jerusalem are about people, not ideas. "What's a Simple Man to Do?" with its Sir Douglas Quintet-style organ riff, tells the story of a poor, jobless Mexican who gets caught smuggling drugs across the border. "Tell my mother that I said I'm sorry," he says from prison. "I know she didn't bring me up this way/Ask if she could light a candle for me/Pray that I'll come home someday." An eerie Dock Boggs-like banjo drives "The Truth," a meditation on life in a prison cell ("There's a guard on the second shift comes on at three/And he's always about a half inch off of me/Like he needs to keep remindin' me that I'm not free").
Then there is the lovely "I Remember You," a moving duet with Emmylou Harris that touches on heartache and memory. Earle, caught up in his political fervor, dismisses it as a "chick song" in the press notes. But unlike Jerusalem's topical rants, "I Remember You" is for the ages.
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