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The Perils of Political Songwriting

4th July

Steve Earle

Few albums illustrate the dangers of an intersection between politics and art more profoundly than Steve Earle’s The Revolution Starts Now. Earle, a pioneer of so called “alt-country,” busted out of a stint in prison for drug and firearm charges to send his career soaring with a ferocious, spare comeback album called Train-A-Comin’ in 1995, scoring himself a Grammy the following year. Not bad for a guy who, only months prior, couldn’t shake his taste for heroin and called a cage home. A disciple of the legendary Townes Van Zandt, Earle’s brand of country ditched the women-and-whiskey cliches of old Nashville and replaced it not with the painfully unlistenable bullshit that town’s major studios crank out now–you know, riding a cowboy to save a horse and the Honky Tonk Ba Donky Donk (Hank Williams winces in his grave)–but rather with a new attitude and something different to say, fusing country with a rap sheet and a bad attitude that sold as well on Broadway as it did on Music Row.

Then came the Bush administration, and, as is the case with many of us, something snapped. Albums like Jerusalem and the aforementioned Revolution preached more than they played, delivering lectures laid over music about the policies of the F.C.C. and war without end. These positions are all perfectly commendable, and they happen to coincide with mine. But with some exceptions (the blistering “Amerika V 6.0,” for instance) both the music and the message were compromised–the calm of the painter’s palette chucked for the fire of the pulpit–and the result is often a crude and condescending misfortune.

Steve Earle: “Oxycontin Blues,” Washington Square Serenade (2007)

Thankfully, Revolution Starts Now offers just enough redeeming moments to spare it from the utter failure it might have been, but the problem was that Earle had spent so many years demonstrating that he was capable of so much more than this, both as a composer and a writer. The politics are not the problem–and certainly not with me; I’m as lefty as lefty gets–the problem is that the many convenient and tossed-off details indulged throughout Revolution illustrate the risks any songwriter runs when appropriating their chosen craft for the purposes of political statement. The songs betray an otherwise prolific imagination, as Earle’s constant geography lesson — Baghdad, Basra, Kandahar –confine Revolution Starts Now to a much smaller range of ideas and emotions than Earle usually settles for, exactly the risk any songwriter takes when they know what they want to say before they even put a single word to paper. That’s probably what Milan Kundera meant when she said that “to be a writer doesn’t mean to preach a truth; it means to discover a truth.” Earle knows this, and that’s why Revolution was as surprising as it was disappointing, and a stark contrast to the brilliant return to form on last year’s Washington Square Serenade.

Works like Guitar Town, Copperhead Road and especially Transcendental Blues defied categorization with the broadness of their moods, sounds and ambitions; Revolution, by contrast, could quite easily be billed as Steve Earle’s “Iraq album.” It starts off familiarly enough: the distinctive thump and twang of the bellicose title track recalls past glories such as “NYC,” “Tanneytown” and “I Feel Alright,” and the instrumentation on the talking song, “Warrior” or the eloquent “I Thought You Should Know” are stirring enough, but so much of the album languishes in a sea of uninspired arrangements that wallow in over-written political invective. Clumsy and mawkish portraits such as the story of “Bobby” who “Left behind a pretty young wife and a baby girl / A stack of overdue bills and went off to save the world” really take away from the profound sentiments of such Earle staples as “Lonelier Than This” or “Christmas in Washington.” And remarks such as “yours for the motherfuckin’ revolution” or “Fuck the FCC / Fuck the CIA”–however justified they may be (and they are) probably do more to discredit those who speak out against the unspeakable and costly hubris of the Bush II era. It’s not that Earle’s political material isn’t true–it most certainly is true, and those who wish to argue with the man ought to do it to his face at their own risk–it’s that albums like Jerusalem and Revolution simply sell the man’s talents short, cornering his voice into merely a single aspect of its expression.

Steve Earle: “Tanneytown,” El Corazon (2000)

Not surprisingly, Earle becomes far more articulate when he separates the politics from the art. “Comin’ Around” and “I Thought You Should Know,” conveying moving portraits of scorned lovers overcoming their fear to give it another try, are easily Revolution’s finest moments, warm stories that look past the cliches to find the compassion, as authentic as they are anthemic. Clearly, songwriters who wear their politics on their sleeve walk a difficult balance. That Earle’s more recent Washington Square Serenade is so much more powerful–and so wholly absent of the kind of posturing described above–ought to serve as an instructive admonishment to younger songwriters who mistake art for a platform. Sometimes it can work–somehow Allen Ginsberg pulled it off fifty years ago, and even though Reagan didn’t quite get it, so did Springsteen in 1984–but if such a balance isn’t struck often, it’s because it can hardly be struck at all.