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Steve Earle's Blues


Steve Earle: Jerusalem

E-Squared/Warner Brothers, 2002

Rating: 4.0



Posted: September 30, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The idiotic furor that erupted over "John Walker's Blues," from Steve Earle's contemplative rabble-rouser Jerusalem, has proven to be an empty controversy: Anyone who's heard the song knows better than to decry it as a celebration of the so-called "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. But that brief bout of sound and fury, signifying nothing, may yet prove to have done some damage to Jerusalem if it keeps away the great undecided middle ground of listeners who've never heard Earle before and might be inclined to take a chance. After all, who wants to preach only to the faithful?

Should that happen, the bitter irony will be that the song that kept listeners away isn't even among the best offered here. Jerusalem, far and away Earle's most stridently political album, is also one of his most musically expansive. While it follows the same blueprint of every post-prison effort since I Feel Alright, from the aggressively psychedelic folk-art cover to the glimpses of Earle's idiosyncratic, leftist beliefs and the seamless amalgamation of rootsy styles, Jerusalem also takes more risks than its immediate predecessors, at turns both more populist and more idiosyncratic. Which means that the listener is jerked from the contrived ululating refrain "A shadu la llaha illa Allah" on "John Walker's Blues" to the peppery garage-rock keyboards of "What's A Simple Man to Do?" It's an understandable tack to take: Earle no doubt realized his call to intellectual arms would go down smoother if he broke up the alternative-weekly posturing with some easily identifiable sounds.

But make no mistake: When, for example, Earle kicks off the end-of-the-world parable of the opening "Ashes to Ashes" with a familiar '80s-derived, percussive intro, he's not serving up a platter of musical comfort food like Bruce Springsteen's The Rising. Jerusalem aims not to grieve or to console, but to challenge, confront and stir up some debate. "That's the kind of story I like/ the kind that makes you think," he sings on "The Kind," which echoes I Feel Alright and El Corazon in its uncomplicated, folksy feel, and indeed Jerusalem is stacked with songs intended to do just that. "Ashes to Ashes" issues a stern admonition to the Bush administration's dreams of empire, offering the empirical evidence of history: "Every tower ever built tumbles/ no matter how strong, no matter how tall/ someday even great walls crumble/ and every idol ever raised falls." "What if I told you it was all a lie?" he asks in "Conspiracy Theory," which bemoans "livin' in a dream that's died" while asserting that "Once you've added every little lie together/ you finally find the truth was always waiting there."

For all its firebrand politics, however, Jerusalem isn't nearly as didactic as it could have been. Sadly, it's not as cohesive as it could have been, either. Spoonful-of-sugar tracks like the poignant ballad "I Remember You" (a duet with Emmylou Harris) and the jarringly buoyant "Go Amanda," about a woman escaping a bad (perhaps abusive?) relationship -- the kind of songs Earle can write in his sleep at this point -- break the flow established by stomping, Stones-y rockers like the abrasive "Amerika v 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)" and the contemplative, banjo-fueled prison song "The Truth," which serves as a two-minute set-up for its last line: "Admit that what scares you is the me in you." And too often, the arrangements and melodies of songs like "The Kind" and the closing title track bear a distracting stamp of deja vu, to the point that Earle might consider paying himself royalties or suing himself for plagiarism.

But if it proves an uneven, ragged affair, Jerusalem is redeemed both by its honest and clear-eyed approach to the post-September 11th universe and its refusal to succumb to the mire of bomb-throwing radical politics at the expense of hope for a better future. "I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/ will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem," Earle sings on the sprightly, singalong title track, adding "I don't remember learning how to hate in Sunday school." His smart invocation of Abraham -- who, as Time magazine recently pointed out, holds the distinction of being the only biblical figure (aside from God) acclaimed by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike -- underscores Earle's dream of our world's differing religions one day reaching common ground. That optimistic sentiment, in contrast to the condemnatory polemics of "Amerika v 6.0" or "Ashes to Ashes," proves Jerusalem's saving grace. Here's hoping the idea proves as catchy as the song.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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