Steve Earle: Jerusalem (Artemis)

We live in a complicated world and Earle chooses to write about it, not in terms of black and white, but a whole shitload of gray.

It is too bad we don’t live in a better world; then Steve Earle could concentrate on subjects that wouldn’t cause as much outrage: pickups, divorce, and drinking problems. However, we live in a complicated world and Earle chooses to write about it, not in terms of black and white, but a whole shitload of gray.

His new album, Jerusalem, takes on the post-9/11 world and doesn’t flinch. His social commentary is as sharp as Bruce Springsteen’s was on Born in the USA, but not nearly as subtle. For months prior to the disc’s release, he created an outrage with “John Walker’s Blues.” It seems natural for the writer in Earle to see the world from the eyes of America’s most famous enemy combatant. This is not empathetic as much as much as a plea for a complacent society to stop thinking only what the government or the media tells them.

Several of the songs on this disk match its question-the-official-story mode. The only negative to this—for these are all great songs—is that it sometimes causes us to ignore what a great musician and singer Steve Earle is. His voice has become even rougher over the years and he puts it to good use, especially when he is accompanied by a voice as sweet as Emmy Lou Harris’s on “I Remember You.” The final song (and title track) from the disk is a beautiful plea for peace in the Middle East. “Jerusalem” sums up so much of what Earle stands for and why his album follows a fine tradition of protest music that flows through recorded history: “And there’ll be no barricades then/there’ll be no wire or walls/and we can wash this 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.”

The album moves away from the bluegrass of Transcendental Blues and more toward the workingman’s rock of Springsteen, but the subject matter probably precludes Earle from reclaiming the flag, as Springsteen did. Steve Earle is doing the grunt work of flag saving that people only realize the importance of years later. For now he is just the guy who is using his recording contract to question authority. He sees things that don’t set well with him and he is ringing the alarm.

Lucky for us. That is where great albums, like this one, come from.

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