Attack of the Chickenshits

Steve Earle Practices Rock and Roll Leftism for Its Own Sweet Sake

While Jerusalem is as clearly a response to 9/11 as The Rising or the two country songs—and maybe more so than my cathartics of choice, Sleater-Kinney's One Beat and the Mekons' OOOH!—it only deals directly with the Al Qaeda attacks and their military aftermath in "John Walker's Blues" and the climactic title song. Yet it's the most topical record of the bunch, front-loaded with references to assorted tyrannies of class—HMOs, maquiladoras, immigration barriers, escapist media, the assassinations of JFK and MLK if they count, and of course the prison system. With Earle slurring his drawl more pointedly than usual and Will Rigby's drums front and center on the rock tracks and breaking out of the quieter ones, the material works up a pretty good head of consciousness, and because his arrangements travel so light, they generate more musical get-up-and-go than The Rising's weapons of mass reconciliation. A good thing, too, because the music helps patch over all the stitches Earle drops. Does the man really think the daring young president of the Cuban missile crisis would have finessed Vietnam? That we're all criminals inside? That caper movies, girlie pictures, and silly love songs distract us from our higher calling? Does he know the Constitution favored the propertied classes more in the good old days than it does now? And while we understand that Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman partake of the usual lefty virtue-by-association, what the hell is Aaron Burr doing among the patriots in his inspirational liner notes? Burr was the prototype of the profiteering politician. Is this some meta-ironic traitor joke?

If so, I wish Earle had expended his tiny store of subtlety someplace else. I wish "John Walker's Blues" was as complex as "Paradise," that the all-things-must-pass of Earle's "Ashes to Ashes" cast as cold an eye on banality as the Mekons' "Stonehead," that the only perfect things on the whole damn record weren't consecutive love-in-vain songs by a guy who'd been married six times as of his last bio. But you know the drill—it's a fool's errand to seek political wisdom from a pop musician (much less a folkie, since Earle is a little of both) unless that musician happens to be named Linton Kwesi Johnson. They're artists, folks.

But get this—for just that reason, their misconceptions and imprecisions don't always do them in. Certainly they don't here. No doubt Earle wants to convince America to end the death penalty and hate the rich, but on this album those specifics are means to a broader end: being a musical leftist, period. As is known to anyone who reads the press kit, the seeds of Jerusalem were planted by the president of Earle's label—and no, Sean Hannity or is that Tom Vanderbilt, not to make a quick buck, how dumb. Danny Goldberg is just a lifelong civil libertarian who likes to stir up trouble. I haven't asked him—which I could, we talk once in a while—but I bet I know what he was thinking.

What has been the chief domestic casualty of this war on terrorism that keeps changing its spots? The Bill of Rights as exemplified by political dissent, most believe. How to fight back? Exercise the right to dissent. That's the joy of this record, which, with a crucial push from drummer Rigby, gives off a sense of freedom and defiance that's rock and roll, not protest music. This artistic effect is made possible in part by all the play Earle has relinquished—by what might be construed as his ultimate political ineffectiveness. The Rising is dragged down, with a few magnificent exceptions, by the overburdened emotions and conceptual commonplaces of the great audience that inspired it. Jerusalem travels light and gets where it's going.

Its final destination is the best, too. Where all its other political songs are embittered, "Jerusalem" doesn't have the stomach for bitterness. It watches Israelis roll their "death machines" over "the ground where Jesus stood" and asserts without the slightest justification that this too shall pass—not in the all-things-must-pass sense, but in living time. On The Rising, that promise would sound like a big lie. Here Steve Earle is just expressing himself. Here a hymn to hope is what free speech is for.

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