September 2, 2004

Democracy Is Hard Work

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Steve Earle has big ideas. In the liner notes to his latest release, The Revolution Starts… Now, Earle writes, “American democracy requires constant vigilance to survive and nothing short of total engagement to flourish.” An album openly critical of the Bush Administration and its policies, namely the war in Iraq, The Revolution Starts… Now enacts Earle’s philosophy. The record demonstrates that Earle is undoubtedly a vigilant and engaged citizen — precisely the kind that makes it all work.

Yet unlike so many artists and so many of us, Earle is more than just pissed and politicized: he’s active. He and his band began writing and recording the protest album immediately after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal broke, aiming to capitalize on both their outrage and the nation’s political climate. They literally wasted no time. As he explains in his notes, he recorded nine of the album’s eleven songs “within 24 hours of the first line hitting the paper.” Earle still somehow managed to avoid producing the over-the-top, unrestrained, unartful protest album that he very well could have. His protest comes much more fluidly, in subdued alt-country and poignant anecdotes.

“Rich Man’s War,” for example, dramatizes what war means for the working class, and more specifically, what the war in Iraq has meant for America’s young, poor people. The song first narrates Jimmy’s plight: “Jimmy joined the army ’cause he had no place to go/ There ain’t nobody hirin’ ’round here since all the jobs went down to Mexico.” It then tells of Bobby, who chose also to serve his country only to have “the finance company [take] his car” while he was “still there chasin’ ghosts.” Both verses end with a somber, resigned refrain, a sad narrator explaining that Jimmy and Bobby represent too many of America’s young soldiers — they are poor boys off to fight a rich man’s war.

Earle reuses this Springsteen-esque technique in “Home to Houston” and “The Gringo’s Tale,” in which he illustrates his objections to American foreign and domestic policies anecdotally. These songs, like “Rich Man’s War,” are particularly successful insofar as they are touching, convincing, and not in the least obnoxious. Fortunately, these tracks redeem the nearly unredeemable joke track “Condi, Condi,” a not-funny-enough ballad sung to National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. They also help to cloud the silly, uncontrolled “F the CC,” whose refrain simply yells “fuck the FCC / Fuck the FBI / Fuck the CIA / Livin’ in the motherfuckin’ USA.”

No doubt, the album as a whole is powerful, especially given its context. It carries in its folk melodies the urgency and concern with which it was recorded and sends a clear message. Most notably, though, it does so innovatively, without leaning too forcibly on rhetoric or protest slogans. Rather, the album decorates itself with tracks that are by no means abrasive but in fact definitely tuneful. The feeling of The Revolution Starts… Now is that it absolutely had to be made, which, as it happens, it did.

Archived article by Lynne Feeley
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer