In this least silly season, Steve Earle is reporting for duty. Not that he had much choice; if he hadn’t put his money where his mouth’s been, he’d have looked like the asshole he says he used to be. To his credit, Mr. Nashville Outlaw has set himself up as a one-man Section 527 lobby, hanging with the nascent Music Row Democrats, piloting a show for the Air America network, touring swing states, and—duh—releasing an anti-Bush LP. According to the liners, Earle and band put their platform together in May so they could “weigh in,” writing songs on the spot and recording each in a day. Nine made the cut out of 11 tracks overall.
Amazingly, the two strongest are the two most topical. “Home to Houston” is a play to the middle, the first and let us hope last trucker anthem to begin, “When I pulled out of Basra they all wished me luck.” It’s got that funny rig-rock bass-guitar interplay and snappy ABAB AABB rhyme scheme that red-staters (and the hipsters who ape them) supposedly love, and if that gets him in the door, his wised-up mercenary just might win them over: “Early in the mornin’ and I’m rollin’ fast/Haulin’ 9,000 gallons of high-test gas/Sergeant on the radio hollerin’ at me/Look out ahead here come a RPG.”
It’s the same idea as the Errol Morris MoveOn ad, letting the people hired to prosecute this war tell their friends—who probably voted for the commander-in-chief last time—how much it sucks. “Rich Man’s War” does the same thing for the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and a suicide bomber in Gaza. “Home to Houston” is the perfect antidote to that roof-is-on-fire scene in Fahrenheit 9/11, the one that made you feel dirty for enjoying rock music. And “Fuck the FCC,” the other sure keeper, could fuel our version of that moment. Picture a bunch of America Coming Together volunteers getting fired up to canvass, cranking the stereo, and singing along to a blistering denunciation of the attack on civil liberties. “Fuck the FBI!” they howl. “Fuck the CIA! We’re living in the motherfucking USA!” You can’t win without your base.
It makes sense that, of the improvised songs, the rockers turned out best. Over his last few records, Earle’s carved out a space between Springsteen’s “No Surrender” (John Kerry’s convention theme) and Michael Moore’s partisan edit of “Rockin’ in the Free World” (which powers Fahreneheit 9/11‘s credits) where the AOR writes itself: “Transcendental Blues,” “Amerika v. 6.0,” these two. What’s trickier is the sweet stuff, the ones he calls “chick songs,” and his compressed process didn’t produce any winners. There’s an elegant round about settling down called “Comin’ Around,” but it has strings and obviously required some care (unfortunately, Emmylou Harris sings on it and so it is unlistenable). There are also two outright howlers: “Warrior,” a horrendous high-school lit-mag poem set to a dirge, and “Condi, Condi,” which comes on to the National Security Adviser in pidgin calypso (“people say you’re cold but I think you’re hot”). Even Earle seems to hate it—his vocal sounds like it was recorded on the darkest day of his addiction. For a man who’s been called the third-worst singer ever, it’s a new low.
Then again, the really good slow Steve Earle songs are about capital punishment, and on this, his most explicitly political record, he doesn’t address his signature cause. That might have been a strategic choice. Unlike the murderous shits who served as the last two Democratic nominees, John Kerry has always opposed the death penalty, waffling only when he said he’d be up for killing foreign terrorists. In May Earle knew Kerry would be the nominee; maybe he figured abolition was a wedge issue and decided to focus on uniting rather than dividing. Maybe he was trying to be a team player. You should too.