Long present as subtext, Steve Earle's left-wing politics have come to the fore a little more prominently with each of his last few albums. For a singer with Earle's beliefs, the times seem to necessitate the shift, but when musicians decide to "get political," listeners often need to brace for lesser work: Political demands tend to interfere with artistic ones. Fortunately, Earle has followed a different model, keeping his songwriting sharp even as he's brought his opinions to the fore, and never mistaking urgency as a need for stridency.
Earle's 2002 album Jerusalem stirred controversy with the song "John Walker's Blues," a song that dared to present American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh as a human rather than an object for ridicule and hate. Empathy remains one of Earle's great gifts, and he uses it throughout the new The Revolution Starts Now, vividly singing from the perspectives of a scared military truck driver in Iraq on "Home To Houston," and a burned-out soldier of fortune on "The Gringo's Tale." It helps that his protagonists have come to see the world Earle's way, but the personal element still only increases the songs' persuasive power.
Earle's skill at writing catchy songs doesn't hurt, either. The raucous anti-FCC anthem "F The CC" sounds like it could be a big hit, if the subject matter itself didn't preclude airplay. "Fuck the FCC... I'm living in the motherfuckin' USA," he sings on the chorus; later, his backup breaks into cheerleader-inspired chants of "F-U-C-K." Earle couches hopefulness in his defiance, and that, too, only adds to the appeal. The singer knows that change doesn't happen unless people will it to happen. He puts that sentiment in the title and in the title track, which appears in two versions and brings the fight to a personal level.
For those inclined to agree with Earle's politicsat this point, does anyone else buy his albums?The Revolution Starts Now will probably remain in constant rotation through the election. With any luck, the next record will allow Earle more room for songs like "I Thought You Should Know" and "Comin' Around" (a duet with Emmylou Harris). Both serve as reminders that Earle can still sing as stirringly as anyone else about love, heartbreak, and all those things that still matter, no matter which way the votes get added up.