The Revolution Starts...Now
eptember 11th hit Steve Earle hard. Not hard in the same way it hit the family and friends of victims, of course, or even the city of New York collectively. But also not in the same way it hit most of the rest of us: a horrifying tragedy that unleashed a torrent of patriotism and protest, but eventually faded into the white noise of our daily lives, a psychically scarring memory we’ll always carry, but one that ultimately hasn’t affected our taxing, spending, fucking, nesting, consuming and investing natures.
Earle’s been politically conscious ever since his mid-80s pre-jail-and-rehab commercial heyday, but not until his last two albums has the author of “Copperhead Road” and “Christmas in Washington” actively embraced the role of Political Songwriter proper. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the ideological war with Islam that soon followed, Earle fired off 2002’s Jerusalem, an angry, confused attempt to sort through all the political and spiritual debris borne of the terrorist attacks. The album was scattershot and messy, but incredibly fascinating because of it, Earle working through the wreckage and looking for answers, lashing out blindly at times and feeling completely inept at others, awkwardly identifying Taliban sympathizer John Walker Lindh as a symbol of American pop culture spurned in favor of Allah’s ascetic purity.
That latter shit-stirrer may have been endemic of Earle’s slightly-dulled lyrical rapier, but the morass engendered some truly revealing moments as well, most notably Earle’s admission on “Amerika V. 6.0” that “letters to the editor is the best that we can do”, a withering self-critique of aging boomer activism that nails Earle’s actual tweedy-liberal audience (not to be confused with his ideal blue-collar one) better than anything else he’s ever put to tape. Much more characteristic of Jerusalem’s uncertain tone, however, is the closing title track, a well-meaning wish for Middle East peace that teeters precariously between hesitancy and hope.
Where Jerusalem was all reaction, humanely riddled with helplessness and incomprehension, The Revolution Starts...Now is the well-honed response, a focused act of civil disobedience. Earle has sized up his targets this time around, plus he’s suffused his character studies with nuance and sensitivity. “Home to Houston” could have been far more polemic in its portrayal of a Texas truck driver dropped in the middle of a Basra shitstorm, but Earle lets him boast about his skill behind the wheel of a big rig rather than curse his misfortune.
Even when he sets out to squeeze our bleeding hearts on “Rich Man’s War”, Earle’s vivid evocation of an American soldier “chasing ghosts in the thin dry air” juxtaposes powerfully and poignantly with his snapshot of a young Palestinian suicide bomber, Earle cleanly skirting strident caricature while manufacturing real dramatic tension through the topicality of his subject matter. Contrast this with the recent Dirty South PSA’s from the Drive-By Truckers, songwriters every bit Earle’s equal who nonetheless never make it sound like there’s nearly as much at stake.
Now, nuance is all well and good, but Earle knows true revolution requires more than artful prose. Freed from his duties as real-world miniaturist and common-man scribe, Earle lets fly with a few well-aimed salvos solely intended to raise hackles and puncture the right-wing monolith. Two versions of the call-to-arms title track (unnecessarily) bookend the album, but smack dab in the middle are “Condi Condi”, an ironic faux-reggae ode to Condoleeza Rice, and “F the CC”, a giddy, profanity-laced pisstake that sounds like a shock tactic, when in fact it’s just an ode to the First Amendment. The former in particular has been misread by a number of critics, who either brand it too broad an attack or else cite it as proof Earle shouldn’t dabble in reggae. Of course, these are the same people who complain that modern-day protest music is too strident and self-serious, and then somehow can’t see the hilarity in a self-professed Communist roots-rocker singing a purposefully cloying limp-dreadlock love ballad to a sexless National Security Advisor who has an oil tanker named after her?
So it’s clear Earle has all his election-year bases covered, but he still needs some more protean material to fill out the record. When asked in a recent Onion AV Club interview about the relative dearth of non-political songwriting in his last two albums, Earle claims that he wishes he could turn his back on the vitriol and concentrate solely on “chick songs”, only that current conditions have compelled his conscience elsewhere. Now, when Steve says “chick songs” he means stuff like “Go Amanda” and “I Remember You” from Jerusalem or “Comin’ Around” and “I Thought You Should Know” from The Revolution Starts...Now, which almost makes you want to start praying for four more years of Dubya. It’s not that these non-partisan forays are bad, just that Earle seems to have used up all his energy on the rabble-rousers and hasn’t saved any juice for the trad-rock numbers. Not to mention the fact that Earle’s always been about more than “chick songs” and political screeds.
Classics like El Corazon and Transcendental Blues boasted travelling songs, rambling songs, story songs, existential songs and love songs that were tougher and truer than the afterthoughts of his last two releases. Earle can rock the soapbox for as long as it’s necessary, but here’s hoping he won’t stop searching for answers once he’s stepped down from the podium.