Washington Square Serenade

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Article Reviews

Steve Earle (New West, 2007)

Steve Earle is, without question, the most overtly political artist in American popular culture. For a long time his activism (and songwriting) focused on his opposition to the death penalty. But shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan, he wrote a sympathetic ballad about John Walker Lindh (the American Taliban), and he only got more pointed and confrontational from there.

In Washington Square Serenade Earle’s politics are in the background. “Down Here Below” works out a chilling analogy between a predatory bird and America’s lords of commerce. And “Steve’s Hammer” promises that he will keep singing “angry songs” until “there ain’t no hunger.” But a good half of the 12 tracks muse upon the contentment that has snuck up on him in his midlife marriage to fellow songwriter Allison Moorer.

Ever since his emergence with the country hit “Guitar Town” in 1986, Earle has confidently straddled the line between country and rock. He followed that early success with a rock hit, and record companies have never been sure how to promote him. His albums have typically alternated acoustic, bluegrass-derived tunes with roaring guitar thrashers. He has recorded with punk rock band The Supersuckers and did a straight bluegrass album with the Del McCoury Band. It all works because Earle, who started out as a Music Row songwriter in Nashville, has an innate gift for melody, regardless of the setting.

On Washington Square Serenade, Earle may finally be arriving at a sonic synthesis that suits his sensibility. Acoustic finger-picking floats over drum loops, and electronic keyboard lies down with mandolins. On “City of Immigrants,” a hymn to his adopted home of New York City, Earle works with a folk music band from Brazil.

This disc's title refers to the famous Greenwich Village park that has been a center of folk music, bohemian culture, and radical politics for most of a century. Steve Earle seems very much at home in that busy intersection.