Friday, June 29, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1153: Steve Earle

Greetings, gentle readers! I was away briefly while dealing with a musical crisis. I lost my Sony Walkman Tuesday night and had no portable music for a day. Not having headphones and looking…er…slightly different (as I do) can make you a magnet for fellow weirdos when you are out and about in the world. While some of those encounters were strangely pleasant, it still drove me to search for my Walkman with renewed enthusiasm. I it lying between my bed and nightstand. Crisis averted!

Disc 1153 is… Jerusalem
Artist: Steve Earle

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? More annoying art from perennial Earle cover artist Tony Fitzpatrick. I like this one more than most of his stuff, and the whole snake without a head design is a pretty cool idea, but I still wouldn’t decorate my house with it.

How I Came To Know It: This was just me buying the next Steve Earle album when it came out. I’m a fan.

How It Stacks Up:  I didn’t buy Steve Earle’s latest album “So You Wanna Be An Outlaw” (at least not yet) and I parted ways with “Terraplane” so I now have 15 Steve Earle albums. I put “Jerusalem” fifth, although really it is tied with “El Corazon” for fourth. It is one of Steve Earle’s greatest records. Since this is the final Earle review, here’s the full recap:

  1. I Feel Alright: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 14)
  2. Exit 0: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 423)
  3. Guitar Town: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 616)
  4. El Corazon:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 395)
  5. Jerusalem: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  6. Copperhead Road: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 398)
  7. Train A Comin’:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 127)
  8. The Revolution Starts Now: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 359)
  9. Sidetracks: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 851)
  10. I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 718)
  11. The Low Highway: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 633)
  12. The Hard Way: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 179)
  13. Washington Square Serenade: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 226)
  14. The Mountain: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 332)
  15. Transcendental Blues: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 438)
  16. Terraplane: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 980)
I also have Townes, which is an album full of Townes Van Zandt covers. I love this record and gave it 4 stars, but it seemed weird to stack up against his original material. If I did, I’d probably put it at around #6 and bump everything else down one.

Ratings:  4 stars but close to 5

Throughout Steve Earle’s career he has sung about whatever the hell he pleases, in whatever style appeals to him. He’d already been at it for years when in 2002 he released “Jerusalem” and decided to go ahead and add a whole other level of pointy to his message, and to hell with how Middle America felt about it.

“Jerusalem” came out the year after a bunch of criminals crashed aircraft into the World Trade Centre, leaving America reeling. Musicians – American and otherwise – turned their talents to the tragedy in a lot of different ways. Sarah McLachlan expressed her anguish on “World on Fire,” (on “Afterglow” reviewed at Disc 857) and Bruce Springsteen released an entire album dedicated to the lives of the people affected when the towers fell on “The Rising” (reviewed back at Disc 751). Toby Keith imagined a Statue of Liberty that shakes her fist and plants her boot in the ass of America’s enemies. Toby Keith is such a moron.

Back to Steve Earle, who decided to take the opportunity to use the first half of “Jerusalem” to deliver a pointed and unapologetic critique of American society. With a nation still grieving it was an aggressive move that offended a lot of people, but it also inspired some of the best music in Earle’s long career.

The record starts with “Ashes to Ashes” a song about how every empire crumbles, including lines like “every tower ever built tumbles” just in case you weren’t clear on what empire he is referencing. “Amerika v.6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” points the finger at anyone who shrugs and decides to settle, or as Earle puts it:

“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 we can do.”

These songs feature an aggressive style that matches the aggressive lyrics. The electric guitars fuzz out and at times Earle’s voice is distorted like you are hearing it through a megaphone, which makes sense given the protest feel of the tracks. When it isn’t fuzzed out, he slurs or shouts his lines with visceral anger and frustration. All this distortion creates a sense of unease which is exactly the intent.

The final song in this four song mini-set, “John Walker’s Blues” is from the perspective of American teen-turned Taliban terrorist John Walker Lindh, exploring with heartfelt sincerity how a good Catholic boy from California turns into a terrorist.

Following this final salvo Earle turns his mind to his more traditional topics for the rest of the record. “The Kind” is a pretty little tale filled with cowboys with achin’ hearts and pictures of girls with secret smiles. After all the doom and gloom and anger, “The Kind” is a palate cleanser. It is like Earle is reminding you, “Hey, I still see beauty. I’m not permanently broken, just angry.”

The rest of the record is Earle doing this more traditional fare – tales of low level drug dealers in over their heads (“What’s a Simple Man To Do?”), the prison system (“The Truth”), and hopeless romantic notions (“I Remember You”). The latter is a duet with Emmylou Harris and one of the great songs about ended relationships you will ever hear. Emmylou sounds as good here as she ever has. It was this song that drove me down the rabbit hole of her music collection and for that alone I owe “Jerusalem” a lot.

The record ends with the title track, and sees Earle reconciling on a number of levels. The style of “Jerusalem” matches the quiet and subtle style on the record’s second half, but returns to the themes of war and violence and doubt from the first.

This time Earle is conciliatory and filled with optimism. The distorted production is gone and as Earle’s harmonica announces the arrival of the melody you get the feeling that you’ve come through a storm to a clear day. In the song Earle wakes to the sound of the TV announcing war in the Middle East, and feels an initial hopelessness but then he recovers. The song ends with these hopeful lines:

“And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wires or walls
And we can wash all the blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls.

“And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.”

Sadly, many people by this time would have tuned Earle out, no doubt preferring the visceral idiocy of Toby Keith or (hopefully) the gentler touch of McLachlan or Springsteen. The album “Jerusalem” resulted in Steve Earle being banned from most of mainstream country radio, which is a pretty sad indictment of free speech.

Not me. I’ve never agreed with everything Steve Earle says, but that should never be a prerequisite for great art. On “Jerusalem” Earle speaks from the depths a great and wounded heart, but it is also a heart with an amazing capacity for seeing the beauty in the world, and a willingness to forgive. It may at times be a journey through grief but it is a journey worth taking.

Best tracks: Amerika v.6.0 (The Best We Can Do), Conspiracy Theory, John Walker Lindh’s Blues, The Kind, I Remember You, Shadowland, Jerusalem

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