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Steve Earle, ‘Jerusalem’ (Artemis)

Steve Earle spent the late ’80s writing songs about bad politics happening to good people. In the ’90s, a nasty drug addiction reduced him to poverty, and he fell through the cracks he sang about. When he pulled himself together, his music delved into the politics of the heart rather than the nation. But with Alan Jackson wondering where you were when the world stopped turning and Toby Keith threatening to open up a tallboy of red-white-and-blue whup-ass, what’s a country leftist to do? Jerusalem is Earle’s attempt to reconnect with a troubled America, where the political is more personal than ever.

The album’s centerpiece, if only for the prerelease controversy it generated, is “John Walker’s Blues,” a slow country-blues song with Middle Eastern overtones, sung in the voice of the infamous “American Taliban.” Earle follows Walker from his beginnings as “an American boy raised on MTV” to his role as jihadi and back “to the land of the infidel.” It’s gutsy in ambition and convincing in execution, but the middle-class kid from Marin is a far cry from the down-and-out country boys Earle spoke for on 1986’s Guitar Town. Walker’s impoverishment is more spiritual than cultural: “He went out looking for something to believe in,” Earle writes in the liner notes. Fair enough, but nothing in the song explains how that led him to the Taliban. Couldn’t he have just followed the Phish tour?

In some way, though, the alienation Earle sings about simply mirrors his own–given the jingoism that followed September 11, he isn’t so impressed with the culture here, either. The music onJerusalem tends toward ominous and subdued country rock, afitting backdrop for Earle’s meditation on what it means to be an American these days. Like Springsteen on The Rising, he’s drawn to big issues and rightly suspicious of easy answers. But instead of offering comfort, he asks questions–What lasts? (“Ashes to Ashes”); Who’s in charge? (“Conspiracy Theory”); and, on the title track, When is it ever going to end? Earle wants to know whether America is still the kind of place that values a tough man who asks hard questions. At the very least, Jerusalem will give him a way to find out.

Tags: Albums