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Steve Earle
Artemis Records (

cd cover Steve Earle is unrepentant, as one of his toughest songs declares. He makes no apologies for his past dissent and rebellion, and he does not back down from saying what he sees in America now. It's no pretty picture. While Bruce Springsteen on The Rising teases shimmering, half-comforting pieties from his own vision of the fallen World Trade Center Towers, Earle chants "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" in the opening song of his new album, JERUSALEM, and reminds us "That every tower ever built tumbles/No matter how strong no matter how tall . . . And every idol ever raised falls."

Earle lets loose a jeremiad in this CD, propelled by an astute fury at the greed, ineptitude and murderous chicanery he sees as constituting the true rising tide in the USA today. Earle's vision of what is coming into being in this country is closer to Yeats' "Second Coming" nightmare of a "rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born" than of a stricken nation rallying together to make a noble stand against evil. In his liner notes to JERUSALEM, Earle confides that the American flag decals now plastered all over this land fill him with chilling memories of the years when the US flag was wielded as a threat by Vietnam War "hawks" who demanded "unity" in a time of national crisis--AMERICA, LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT -- and how the US then descended into bitter, violent internal strife. Earle's American "dream" is less of shining towers of light than of the places of imprisonment and execution he has so often visited.

It is a bleak prophecy Earle puts forward, (though it's set in some of his most lovely music, augmented by Emmy Lou Harris and a most innovative production),and he surely will be criticized for it. There has been a reactionary wail of objection to "John Walker's Blues", a stunning cut where the writer slips inside the imagined mind of an idealistic, religiously-devout American youth gone to fight a failed war far from home: "As death filled the air we all offered up prayers/And prepared for our martyrdom . . . Now they're draggin' me back with my head in a sack/To the land of the infidel".

Steve Earle has always sketched bitter warriors well: mercenaries, Confederate grunts, Irish Fenians and a gun-toting pot-farming Vietnam vet in his signature song, "Copperhead Road". On Jerusalem, his portrait of young John Walker Lindh is counterposed to another band of fighting brothers, the Americans killed in Vietnam: "Half a million soldiers fly across the water/One in ten are never comin' back again/Fifty thousand sons who never grew to fathers/Don't you ever wonder who they might have been". Earle's setting this lesson from recent US history in the present tense gives it a chilling cautionary tone--the prophet looks at the past and sees a possible future.

Clearly, Steve Earle intends Jerusalem as a warning, and just as clearly Earle sees himself as a defiant patriot, clear-eyed enough to see the Patriot Act as the dire threat to the US Constitution that it is. He is blunt in his liner notes and in recent comments about this album and the American political situation: "I still think what happened to John Kennedy is pretty much what Oliver Stone said happened to him. I killed seventeen deer with bolt action rifles and believe me, no one could have done what they said Oswald did." In other words, America may have been through not just civil disorder, but literal coup d'etat in recent decades, and the worst consequences of the true "attack on America" may be yet to play out. Just as Oliver Stone was labeled "Hollywood's house paranoid," so Steve Earle is sure to be accused of wild-eyed delusions, or worse. After all, this is a time when smug, rich, Stetson-crowned country stars have revived Merle Haggard's corny chestnut, "Fightin' Side of Me" as a singalong anthem, and when sincere, skilled pop songsters like Neal Young and Bruce Springsteen can do little more than offer wan prayers for peace. Steve Earle, on the other hand, continues to show his fighting side. He's picked a fight he feels is worth fighting; a battle for the soul of this country, and perhaps the future of the world. Jerusalem is a rousing opening salvo. - Bill Nevins

You can listen to tracks from the CD at Artemis Records

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