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Steve Earle: Jerusalem


Steve Earle

Album: Jerusalem
Label: Artemis

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"Admit that what scares you is the me in you," goes the final line of "The Truth," a track from Steve Earle's new Jerusalem. Those words could easily serve as the epigraph for the album itself. The song is sung from the perspective of a self-aware prisoner who repents his crimes, but still isn't sure they warrant the dehumanizing abuses he's endured in prison. As a songwriter and singer, Earle has a gift for hard-won empathy, and that ability has threatened to get him into trouble. Before the album's release, and even before most of those offended had heard it, the song "John Walker's Blues" stirred controversy. Written from the perspective of American Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh, it relates the story of "an American boy raised on MTV," and it gets at what makes Lindh such a disturbing figure: the way he gives a recognizable, even pitiable, face to a previously faceless terrorist threat. Earle's song focuses on the man and not his cause, and it does something that, outside of the passing of time, only art can do: It expands the bounds of sympathy beyond what comes naturally. (Toby Keith should hear it and weep.) Unsurprisingly, Sept. 11 and the state of the nation serve as Jerusalem's recurring themes. Shifting from the Biblical to the satirical, the two opening tracks, "Ashes To Ashes" and "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)," offer two different accounts of the current climate: The former is a song of dread and inevitability, while the latter suggests that an unhealthy complacency has let guiding principles drift. With such a portentous start, it's remarkable how easily Earle gives himself over to lighter moments like "The Kind," "Go Amanda" (co-written with Sheryl Crow), and "I Remember You," a lovely duet with Emmylou Harris. He seems equally comfortable in both moods, and in both, he creates songs that make Jerusalem one of his most memorable recordings. Although it's a bit of a relief when the album gives up on some of the overbearing production touches of its early tracks, the transition seems like part of the design, leading up to a closing track of disarming simplicity and optimism, a call for peace in the face of overwhelming odds. "Maybe I'm only dreaming, maybe I'm just a fool," Earle sings on "Jerusalem," but it sounds like a global anthem, or something that ought to be.