Some preliminary thoughts on an album that won't be released for a couple months ...
This is a very nice album, and a fine return to form.
Steve Earle is one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and the string of albums he recorded following his release from prison and his newfound sobriety in the mid-'90s right up through the early years of this decade rank among the most dazzling runs anybody's ever committed to recorded media. Train a Comin', I Feel Alright, El Corazon, The Mountain, and Transcendental Blues are all in 4- to 5-star territory, and showcase both his poetic sensibilities and his uncanny ability to integrate folk, country, bluegrass, and raging rock 'n roll into a volatile stew. When he was on, he was brilliant.
But a funny thing happened around the turn of the new millenium. George W. Bush was elected president, a blow from which Steve Earle still has not recovered. And like many of his peers (one of whom actually recorded a song called "Fuck George Bush"), Steve started to mistake vehemence and obnoxiousness for social protest. There have been exceptions (check out the latest albums from Chris Smither or Graham Parker for examples on how to do it right), but the protest music spawned by the current administration has reached a new nadir in terms of articulate argument and wit, and Steve Earle was right at the head of the lobotomized class. Jerusalem, the follow-up to Transcendental Blues, had its moments, but ultimately drowned in a sea of cliches so earnestly banal that they hadn't been uttered since the High Holy Days of the Summer of Love. And The Revolution Starts ... Now was even worse, and was lowlighted by the misogynistic, leering "Condi Condi." Instead of one of our finest songwriters, Steve sounded like a petulant 14-year-old who had just figured out that he could yell "Fuck" in public and draw attention to himself.
He's not brilliant on Washington Square Serenade, but he's much better. A move from Nashville to New York City, a new wife (alt-country singer Allison Moorer, who also sings on the album), and a broader social perspective have all helped. There's still plenty of pointed commentary on songs such as "Oxycontin Blues" and "Down Here Below," but this time Steve's adopted the much more comfortable role of Champion of the Downtrodden. There are no presidents or presidential advisers in fingerpointing sight. Steve claims that his new urban setting has affected his music, and that the new album is much more beat-centered than his previous work. I honestly don't hear it. It sounds like a Steve Earle album to me, which means that it mixes ballads, sturdy roots rock, twang, and some great male/female country duets. If there's anything lacking, it's the crushing piledriver of a rock song like "NYC" or "The Unrepentant" from earlier efforts. But it's a minor quibble. Steve Earle is back, and it's great to hear him engaged without foaming at the mouth. Washington Square Serenade is far from his best effort, but it's a good one.