Every pop singer reacted to Sept. 11 a little differently. Alan Jackson felt confused, maybe a bit weepy, so he wrote "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?" Toby Keith, on the other hand, went with angry and jingoistic in "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue." Bruce Springsteen offered comfort and reassurance. Now comes the singer-songwriter Steve Earle, and if you don't mind, he'd like to jam his thumb in your eye.
At least that's the impression you get right off the bat from his new CD, Jerusalem (Artemis). And it's not because of "John Walker's Blues," the song that got so much attention for its sympathetic take on John Lindh. The unsettling lead-off track is called "Ashes to Ashes," and it's a bizarrely fatalistic number that compares the collapse of the World Trade Center towers to the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs. "It's always best to keep it in mind," Earle sings, "that every tower ever built tumbles … And someday even man's best-laid plans/ Will lie twisted and covered in rust/ When we've done all we can but it slipped through our hands."
In a way, this should not come as a surprise. After all, Earle likes to cast himself as a lefty maverick who speaks unpopular truths. (He publicly pines for the days when the anarchist Emma Goldman was denouncing World War I as imperialist oppression.) And Artemis owner Danny Goldberg did ask him for an "overtly political" record, according to Earle, because "there were some things that needed to be said, especially now, in the world after 9/11." But surely what needed to be said, especially now, was not: Hey, shit happens. Those building were bound to come down eventually, so quit your bellyaching.
Other tracks on Jerusalem are nearly as grim. There's "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)," a tiresome rant about an aging radical who's been reduced to firing off letters to the editor, cheating on his taxes, and kvetching about his HMO. And "Conspiracy Theory" dredges up the hackneyed notion that things could be set right, if only the heroes of the 1960s were still around: "What if you could've been there on that day in Dallas … Maybe something could've been done in Memphis/ We wouldn't be living in a dream that's died."
When Earle goes so woefully wrong, it's usually because he's forgotten what he does best: pretend to be someone else. Earle is not an especially interesting guy, but he does have a gift for making other people interesting. "Ellis Unit One," his gripping first-person song about a prison guard from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, is a protest against the death penalty, the kind of song that can come out dreadfully, but Earle keeps it subtle and effective. In "Tanneytown," from his El Corazón album, he's a young black man who's forced to kill in self-defense and lives to regret it, but the story winds up with an unexpected twist. Exit 0's "Number 29" charts the life of an ex-high-school football star, but without a whiff of sentimentality.(Not that the first-person bit always works for him. He plays a crank in "Amerika v. 6.0," but you don't get the feeling that it's much of a stretch.) Something about becoming another person tames Earle's urge to moralize—maybe because he has to show you, rather than tell you, what's going on. It keeps him honest.
That's why the most controversial song on Jerusalem is also the most effective. "John Walker's Blues" had critics howling ("Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat," shrieked the New York Post), but they weren't paying attention. Earle's not honoring Lindh; he's trying to suss out how a kid from Marin County wound up cowering in an Afghan bunker. A line like "If I should die I'll rise up to the sky/ Just like Jesus, peace be upon him" is his way of pointing out that Muslims recognize Christ as a prophet. When he calls the United States "the land of the infidels," it's the equivalent of Randy Newman's using "nigger"—or Mark Twain's, for that matter. The context is everything.
(The fault in "John Walker's Blues" isn't the lyrics; it's the sleepy way he sings them. Presumably he's trying to come off exhausted and scared, but instead he just sounds lazy.)
After a few perfunctory, by-the-numbers numbers—including one that lifts its riff from an old Texas Tornados song—Earle tries to offer some hope to balance out the desolation. Watching TV footage from the conflict in the Middle East, he says, "I almost lost my mind/ Then I regained my senses again/ And looked into my heart to find/ That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/ Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem." That's a fine sentiment, but nothing that comes before it justifies his optimism. He's speaking for himself here, not for some other character, and he's hopelessly muddled. Earle can be an insightful, penetrating songwriter when he gets out of his own head and into someone else's. If only he'd stay there.