By Mark Guarino
The election season is alive with the sound of dissent, evidenced by the many recent CD compilations and upcoming concert tours arguing for regime change come November.
But compared to country rock iconoclast Steve Earle, most of those artists are late to the party. Earle took the heat solo two years ago when he released “John Walker’s Blues,” a song that tried to get into the mind of the supposed “American Taliban.” When many songwriters opted for silence on the sidelines, Earle went on tour and became one of the few musicians striving to be a thorn that couldn’t be clipped. As he writes in the liner notes to his new album, “democracy is hard work” that “requires constant vigilance to survive and nothing short of total engagement to flourish.”
True enough. “The Revolution Starts…Now” (Artemis) is faithful to Earle’s commitment to the ideal that war is more complex than cable news sound bytes. The best songs tackle those complexities with a deft shift of perspectives.
Rugged country rocker “Home to Houston” is a contractor’s lament being stuck in a country where the threat of beheadings lurks (“Great God Almighty what was wrong with me/I know the money’s good but buddy can’t you see/you can’t take it with you,” Earle sings). On the downcast “Rich Man’s War,” he makes the connection about how the lure military service is aimed at disenfranchised boys in both America and Palestine.
On some songs you can feel the heat, thanks to their immediacy — most were written and recorded during day-long recording sessions last spring when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was headline news. The best result of the quick turnaround is “F the CC,” a stripped down and venomous punk blowout reminiscent of the Clash at their most potent.
Otherwise, the expediency damages what could be an album that is more than just timely, but effective to boot. The damage comes from easy knockoffs that are shallow and predictable. The spoken word “Warrior” is from the perspective of an ancient god railing against human foibles — a nice conceit except for Earle’s pompous tangle of Biblical prose.
On the lighter side, there’s “Condi, Condi,” an ironic calypso love letter to the famously uptight National Security Advisor (“people say you’re cold but I think you’re hot”), a song even Jimmy Buffett wouldn’t stand for. For “The Gringo’s Tale,” Earle cues strings that swallow the song, begging immediate self-importance.
The filler are intermediate love songs including a duet with long-time partner Emmylou Harris. They don’t balance the potential of what this album could have been, proving when arguing against the rush to war, rushing is not a good lead to follow.