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Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002



Steve Earle: "Jerusalem"

The fuss over "John Walker's Blues," Steve Earle's look-see into the mind of the American Taliban, barely survived the actual release of the song a few weeks ago. John Walker Lindh, who is portrayed by Earle as a naive but well-meaning young idealist, has since tearfully owned up to his mistakes and humbly accepted his prison sentence. What had been a talk-radio controversy is now another pop culture footnote to history.

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So much the better, since "John Walker's Blues" is the weakest song on "Jerusalem," Earle's strongest album since he got out of rehab in 1995. The self-doubt implicit in Earle's desire to figure out what made the young American tick carries over into the music, which is plodding and morose. Lindh comes off as not merely naive, but dead from the neck up.

Which isn't to say Earle is bad at projecting characters. His previous personal best, "The Mountain," was filled with first-person narratives about Irish brigands and murderous lovers, but because Earle had set himself the task of telling it all in a bluegrass idiom, he was spared the trouble of setting an agenda. In "John Walker's Blues" he has to create a character and set an agenda.

On his other records, Earle has mostly impersonated a guy called Steve Earle: a left-leaning, self-destructive sumbitch from Texas. On "Jerusalem," Earle is impersonating a guy called Bruce Springsteen; not the anointed faith healer of "The Rising," but the guy from New Jersey who alchemized blue-collar sentimentality into thinking-person's rock.

Red-white-and-bluers should be more upset with Earle's blanket condemnation of Yankee malaise on "Amerika V.6.0" ("cheating on our taxes is the best we can do") or the point blank antiwar diatribe of the title track ("death machines rumbling over the land where Jesus stood"). But Earle seems to think that, blinded by simple-mindedness, they won't really know what he's talking about anyway.

Well-meaning critics have taken Earle to task for his own gross simplifications (boosting JFK as a martyr to peace is a stretch), but there's no denying that he translates his thematic obsessions into vital, hard-hitting music. Propelled by Will Rigby's drumming and augmented with brilliant strokes, such as the R&B chorus on "Conspiracy Theory" and the Spanish organ on "The Kind," "Jerusalem" is Earle's most exciting collection of folk-rock to date. He understands you may not agree with him, but that doesn't mean he isn't going to do his damnedest to get your attention.

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