Culturespill » Steve Earle

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.

John Hiatt and the Scourge of a Digital World

30th May


It’s getting pretty clear that we’ve probably heard the last of the great John Hiatt albums. I’m not asking for another Bring the Family—records that great only grace our ears once every decade or two at best. And I’m not one of those close-minded dip shits that bitch every time his favorite band puts out a new album because “it’s not as good as the last one,” stubbornly resistant to an artist’s creative evolution. Lord knows an artist with Hiatt’s range offers something for everyone and their mother, as adept at the crooning twang of “I Can’t Wait” as he is at the lion’s-roar of rockers like “Something Wild”–to say nothing of his “I am the other Elvis Costello” days on early albums like Slug Line and Two-Bit Monster.

What I am saying, however, is that it’s been far too long since John sounded ready to abandon himself to the song, come what may, in the kind of blistering spontaneity we heard on the brilliant and rollicking Crossing Muddy Waters that scored him a Grammy nod in 2000. Hell, even The Tiki Bar is Open, for all its polish, still offered a sound that swung with two clenched fists. But, good God, Same Old Man? Master of Disaster? (album title or Freudian slip?) What’s happening to Mr. Hiatt is happening to some of America’s most prized and once-gritty songwriters, and it’s not entirely their fault, either.

It’s called “compression,” an alleged “technology” that is, ironically, doing more to set back the soul of rock n’ roll than it is to advance it. We’re told by the advocates of compression and digital recording technology that “Compression is used to bring down the highest peaks, above the threshold level, leaving the lower levels just as they were. After that the level is restored so that the peaks are the same level as they were to start with, but the overall dynamic range is reduced. The result is a much more controlled sound.” The problem, though—as albums like Hiatt’s Same Old Man or even Dylan’s Modern Times demonstrate rather painfully—is that this “controlled sound” makes for a profoundly boring listening experience, the result of a mastering process in which all instruments in the mix are compressed so that no one sound stands out over another—presumably to maintain the listener’s attention for a longer period of time as opposed to merely bearing the song until that killer guitar solo at 2:13.

John Hiatt & The Guilty Dogs: “Perfectly Good Guitar”

The result is an album full of tracks that sound more like extended yawns than songs. David Skolnik, a self-professed “audio nut” and “vinyl guy,” shares this experience with Hiatt’s 2005 album, Master of Disaster: “I had noticed the sound wasn’t very good– so I did the unthinkable and hit the tone controls on my best audio system. After a dramatic reduction of bass and well chosen treble spice, the album came to life–like the Hiatt I’ve known and loved for 20 years! What a difference,” he concluded, “this is a fine album.” Perhaps, but when you need to hit the “treble spice” and tone controls to hear that fine album hidden in the clutter, you know something’s gone horribly wrong.

This is what Dylan meant when he told Rolling Stone that “you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static.” Exactly, Bob. Now maybe he got a little carried away with the whole ”no one’s made a decent record in the last 20 years” bit, but you can understand the frustration of a guy who is responsible for some of the most essential rock n’ roll ever put to tape, a balls-to-the-wall blues-rock sound he pioneered at a time when lo-fi was the only fi. There’s a reason why The Black Keys recorded Thickfreakness in 14 hours on a ¼-inch 8-track Tascam, and it wasn’t just for shits and giggles.

As song after song unfolds on Same Old Man, John Hiatt’s latest offering, a painful fantasy enters the mind: what might this record have been had John been left to his own devices, allowed to strip each song down to nothing more than a solo acoustic performance recorded live in-studio with only a guitar and harmonica to cradle the guttural snarl of his immediately distinctive voice? What if, for once, John had tossed the band to the curb in a long-awaited realization of the power he commands when the excess is filtered from the substance (uh-hem, “Have A little Faith in Me,” “Learn How to Love You,” uh-hem)? With a record like Same Old Man, it’s clear that the vulnerability lurking beneath the surface of these new songs—mostly reflections on a 20-year marriage and entertaining memories from an even longer career—might have come to the fore, and we just might have had the album of John’s life on our hands. What a tragedy.

John Hiatt: “Cry Love,” Walk On (1995)

It truly pains me to make this argument about Hiatt’s more recent work, because few appreciate John’s neglected talents more than I do. I drove from Tampa to Nashville last year just to see John Hiatt do a brief opening set for the woeful Peter Frampton at a charity event (where, predictably, legions of burned-out Framptonites sat stone-eyed and baffled throughout a devastating solo performance by Hiatt, someone most of them had obviously never heard of before—one of many reasons why my girlfriend and I jetted out of there before Frampton took the stage with his prog-rock bullshit—at the Ryman Auditorium, of all places. Is nothing sacred?)

Hiatt’s life story is the stuff of an authenticity few songwriters can claim: his brother committed suicide, his father died when he was 11, his first wife also committed suicide (shortly after the birth of their daughter), and he spent his first night in Nashville sleeping under a park bench. He went on from there to spend nearly thirty years sleeping under another bench—this time the park bench of recognition—but this isn’t Leonard Cohen’s music scene anymore. As Tom Petty argues on his vicious The Last DJ album, fake breasts and a polished smile will sell better than a well-written song any day of the week. “Some angel whore that can learn a guitar lick / Heeeyyy, now that’s what I call muuuuzzziiiiiik!” Petty sneers on “Joe.” Hiatt is easily one of the most hard-nosed and unsung pioneers of what’s become known as “alt-country”—a sound Hiatt was making long before Steve Earle fused it with a rap sheet and boot spurs to make it cool.

Maybe it’s that same crowd of burned-own Framptonites who are currently bemoaning the loss of what they call John Hiatt’s “golden voice” on Same Old Man. “John has lost the golden voice,” someone called E.M. Witt whines in an customer review, “his voice is gravelly and out of pitch at times.” (Oh, no! Gravelly? You mean it sounds like a real human being occasionally! Eeeww!!) And maybe it’s this crowd for whom the whole “compression” crave was fashioned. But anyone who comes to a John Hiatt record in pursuit of a “golden voice” should probably be directed to the bin of remaindered N-Synch CDs over in the corner instead.

John Hiatt: “Have A Little Faith in Me,” Bring the Family (1987)

We don’t ask John for golden voiced pop ditties—we ask him to be real, give it to us straight, and take no easy turns. His voice has always been gruff, and, until recently, so was his music–and that’s what made his records so great. The problem with Same Old Man is that it is boring, and that’s not entirely John’s fault–the culprit is the same thing Dylan complained about after releasing Modern Times–digital recording technology and its “compression” approach to mastering is sucking the life out of these songs; the result is an album that more closely resembles a fleeting drizzle in a cold empty park than a record.

It happened on Master of Disaster and it happens again here. It’s a downright travesty—and I mean that. Either John can’t hear it himself or he just isn’t speaking up. As the aforementioned “audio nut” David Skolnik suggests, “I don’t think John should have to suffer a let down of his public perception because of his tech people- he deserves better!” I wholeheartedly agree, but until Hiatt hands down the ass-whoopin’ those “tech people” have earned, the decline in that “public perception” may become precipitous.

The Spill on Hiatt’s new album, Same Old Man . . .

Associated Press:Same Old Man ranks with the best music of Hiatt’s 34-year recording career . . . “

Glide Magazine: “Same Old Man may be the most accessible album of John Hiatt’s career . . .”

Thoughts of a Lime Monkey:SAME OLD MAN is not a bad record, it’s just a poor Hiatt album . . . “

411 Mania: “Hiatt puts in another solid studio album, that sorrowfully won’t get much airplay . . . “

Bamboo Nation: “Same Old Man is absent any out-of-the-ballpark, radio-friendly singles, but the album is so consistently excellent as a whole that its culminative effect is a bit disconcerting at first . . . “