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Review - "The revolution starts... now"

Andy Newman


 

Having read very favourable reviews of Steve Earle's new album "The Revolution Starts ... Now" in the Morning Star and Socialist Worker, I must confess I am slightly ambivalent about it.

Steve has always been a political artist. As he said himself in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, "I don't see much difference between the songs I write that people call "political" and the other songs. I mean, "Copperhead Road" is pretty f---ing political, but people don't think about it that way. But that was my post-Vietnam song."

This is of course the point - the strength of country music is that it addresses the experience of working class life in America. This is the case with mainstream country singers, such as Loretta Lynn, not only with songs such as the moving "Coal Miner's Daughter", but also songs about the role of women, such as the self explanatory "Don't come home a drinkin' (with lovin' on your mind)", or "the Pill", a deliberate working-class, feminist response to Tammy Winnette's "Stand by you man".

Lorretta Lynn's humorous song "One on the way" brilliantly captures the degree which traditional feminist issues have limited impact on women trapped in grinding poverty, while at the same time celebrating the properties of resilience and self-reliance of working class mothers.

Similarly, Johnny Cash had an extraordinary commitment to social justice. His Christianity expressed a compassionate empathy with the weak and lost. There has been no better artistic expression of how working class people are drawn to the rewards and charisma of crime, for example in his song "I never picked cotton" on the 1996 "Unchained" album. His faith was not bible-belt self-righteousness, but a dream of justice born in a stable and the secret scripture of the poor.

Because it has become associated with spangles and beads, the musical conventions of country music can be a barrier to people unaccustomed to it. That is the significance of artists like Steve Earle, or Dwight Yokkum who have been open to rock influences, particularly the rock ballad traditions of Bruce Springseeen, who has similar concerns expressing day-to-day, blue-collar American life. Nevertheless, as with any authentic musical tradition, country music can be transcended by the genius of the artists. The revival of more traditional forms, such as bluegrass, is interesting as a reaffirmation of Country as a folk music tradition.

Steve Earle has been strongest where he gives poetic expression to the hopes, dreams, frustrations and tedium of America's working poor. He is also a fantastic writer of love songs, not "boy meets girl" clichés, but songs about real love between adults, with themes of loss, divided loyalties, pain and powerlessness. This is the territory where Johnny Cash also excelled.

So Steve's new album "The Revolution starts ... Now" contains some fantastic songs. A great love duet with Emmylou Harris "Coming Around", and his ballad "I thought You Should Know" is a very sophisticated mix of desire, repulsion and fear of rejection. The rock based, "The Seeker" deals well with the themes of aging and loss.

So what is wrong with this album? Well, there is too much "politics" with a capital P. In Steve's 2002 Album, "Jerusalem",  the political song, "John Walker's Blues"  was artistically successful because it subverted the Country convention of a first-person ballad to express the genesis of the American Talliban. Similarly, the title track about Palestine, worked as a first person reaction to events.

The political songs on the new album are generally weaker. Posturing and sloganeering. The title track is particularly uninteresting and clichéd. And the angry "F the CC" is sub-punk foolishness, with its chorus "Fuck the FBI, Fuck the CIA". Only one of the political songs "Rich Man's War" is really good, and interestingly Steve has been including this song on his recent BlueGrass tour around the Country Circuit, to very positive response.

There are some very strong songs included here, and certainly this CD is worth buying, But Steve needs to try a little less hard with the politics. His left wing critique of American capitalism is best served when he expresses in song the lives of its victims, not when he puts political slogans to music.


 

 

September 2004

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