Wednesday, January 18, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 359: Steve Earle

Today was a cold one in my town - about minus 7 celsius, which is serious for Victoria. I enjoyed walking through the snow-swept landscape, with this album serving as my soundtrack.

Disc 359 is...The Revolution Starts Now

Artist: Steve Earle

Year of Release: 2004

What’s Up With The Cover?: Yet another piece of unappealing Tony Fitzpatrick art. Earle has used Fitzpatrick's art on his last nine albums, and while he must have his fans, I'm not one of them. The star is OK, although it looks like it's cautiously poking its right toe in a pool. Maybe that's the idea, but I doubt it.

How I Came To Know It: I am an avowed Steve Earle fan, and while I don't own all his live records, I buy every studio album he puts out. I am rarely, if ever, disappointed.

How It Stacks Up: I have all 15 of Earle's studio records. Of these, "The Revolution Starts Now" holds its own, but the competition is fierce. I'd put it 8th or 9th.

Rating: 4 stars.

Never make Steve Earle angry, and then think you're going to silence his anger by snubbing him. He doesn't bow to such pressures; they just encourage him to yell louder.

So it is with "The Revolution Starts Now," Earle's first record following up on 2002's "Jerusalem." I'll write about "Jerusalem" when I roll it, but a little bit of information is necessary for context.

"Jerusalem" was a record that was heavily critical about U.S. actions in Afghanistan, and the contemplation of an invasion of Iraq. Whether you agree with Earle or not, he is never shy of expressing his opinions, and "Jerusalem" hit very hard, questioning not only U.S. foreign policy, but their democratic future as well.

Mainstream country radio is not known for its bravery with respect to artistic controversy (just ask the Dixie Chicks) and after "Jerusalem," Earle found himself no longer welcome on their rotation, consigned to sattelite radio and the more avante garde outlaw stations. This is where he belonged anyway, so there was no loss, and fans could still find him.

For those who did, two years later he'd deliver his retort, with "The Revolution Starts Now," an album every bit as politically charged as "Jerusalem" and probably a little more pointed now that the Iraq conflict had also started.

From the opening title track, Earle openly calls for revolution. Not the kind Karl Marx envisioned, mind you (toe-dipping red stars on the cover notwithstanding), but a call for Americans to re-engage with the political process. This is Tea Party/Occupy politics before those things existed.

Calling for political action is nothing new to folk music. Leonard Cohen reminded us to stay involved with "There Is A War" and Kris Kristoffersen has a long list of songs exhorting his countrymen to greater involvement. Fresh from his mainstream shunning though, Earle has a fire that burns hot even for him. And just in case you didn't get his message, he records "The Revolution Starts Now" a second time, and closes the record with it. While this is annoying when you're listening on repeat, he makes it clear he wants your attention.

Later songs delve into the subject of war with Earle's classic songwriting style, as he sings about an army truck driver hoping to get out of Iraq alive ("Home To Houston") a series of character vignettes that showcase war's horror through the prism of poverty ("Rich Man's War") and a broken special-ops agent who now finds himself on the wrong side of his former masters ("The Gringo's Tale").

Musically, this album is classic Earle, with rock-country fusion guitar licks that make you want to drive your car fast down a dirt road, wishing all the while it was a pickup truck. The songs are simple and timeless in a way that makes you wish you'd thought of them first. They speak clearly to the soul, despite the dust they throw up in the air (in the deserts here and the deserts far away, as Cohen would say).

Lyrically, this record has some of Earle's finest stuff. In particular the song "Warrior" which is in a strongly alliterative poetic form that reminded me of Beowulf:

"This is the best time of the day - the dawn
The final cleansing breath unsullied yet
By acrid fume or death's cacophony
The rank refuse of unchained ambition
And pray, deny me not but know me now,
Your faithful retainer stands resolute
To serve his liege lord without recompense
Perchance to fail and perish namelessly
No flag-draped bier or muffled drum to set
The cadence for a final dress parade"

This stuff was so drenched with powerful language, I checked the liner notes just to be sure Earle hadn't just lifted it from an old poem, but it is original. The music on "Warrior" is muted, but Earle works in a drone that is heavily evocative of the music at the beginning of "Apocalypse Now" - a decision I cannot believe is coincidence.

Following on four straight pro-soldier, anti-war songs, Earle then throws a curveball, with the humorous and upbeat "Condi, Condi" in which, tongue-in-cheek, he asks Condoleeza Rice out on a date. It gets rude from place to place, and there's no missing the undercurrent of anger as Earle serenades her with but I like to think if Rice has ever heard it, she'd secretly have a good-natured laugh. She looks the type that can handle a little satire. That said, she shouldn't take Earle up on the offer: I'm pretty sure the date would go poorly.

Earle then takes aim at censorship with "F the CC" which is one of the finest, most direct assaults on censorship that you'll hear, not least of which because it is replete with ripe language that would lead Tipper Gore to slap an "Explicit Lyrics" caution on it (although it is notably absent).

"F the CC" is the seventh of eleven songs on the album, but by its conclusion Earle has exhausted the majority of his anger. The record closes out with songs that are more relaxed in both theme and tempo, switching to romantic and introspectic themes.

"Comin' Around" is a duet with Emmylou Harris, who shows that she isn't afraid to be associated with Earle's music, even when he's dead set on offending someone. Emmylou knows good art, and that's her only requirement.

That's my only requirement as well. I often find myself at odds with Earle's politics, but there is no denying his essential humanism. He cares not just about the human race, but about the individual humans that make it up, and his honest compassion translates into songs that speak to and from the heart.

Best tracks: Home To Houston, Warrior, The Gringo's Tale, F the CC, The Seeker

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