The terrorist attacks of a year ago set American songwriters the sternest test they're likely to face in the foreseeable future, a challenge to which most of them have signally failed to respond with the dignity and intelligence one would have hoped. At the dumbest extreme were Toby Keith's knee-jerk fulminations and threats against an unseen enemy. Neil Young preferred to focus on the heroism of the passengers on the fourth plane, while any number of country singers trotted out waves of maudlin sentiment about what was universally regarded as an American Tragedy. Even Bruce Springsteen struggled to view the situation in global rather than national terms.
Which makes Steve Earle's intelligent and thought provoking album Jerusalem all the more remarkable and courageous. Already receiving stick in his homeland for the track "John Walker's Blues", which deals sympathetically with the American youth captured whilst fighting for the Taliban, Earle has refused to jump prematurely to angry conclusions, but done what any decent artist ought to do in the situation, which is try to learn about Islam, and shine a light on both this "alien" culture and his own. "Ashes To Ashes" opens the album with perhaps its most un-American sentiment – an assertion of the impermanence of empires that goes against the grain of his country's imperial arrogance – before "Amerika V.6.0" offers a sardonic portrait of a once proud nation reduced to corporate venality and riven by class, wealth and racial divisions. Like much of the album, it's set to a gritty "Jumpin' Jack Flash" raunch that helps his ironies punch home like uppercuts, defiant and proud.
"Conspiracy Theory" muses upon the resumption of ignorance that's crept over his country since the Sixties, the chorus mocking abandoned principles: "What if you could've been there on that day in Dallas/What if you could wrestle back the hands of time/Maybe somethin' could've been done in Memphis/We wouldn't be livin' in a Dream that's died". The way in which the American Dream died is illustrated in "John Walker's Blues", which finds the protagonist adrift in what he perceives as an alien culture – "I'm just an American boy, raised on MTV/And I've seen all those kids in the soda-pop ads/But none of 'em looked like me" – and finding a purity and nobility in Islam which contrasts starkly with his own country's empty, materialist values. Not all the album is about the widening ripples of September 11, but it's all marked by the same principled, independent spirit, whether Earle's considering wanderlust, immigrants, or the hapless situation of the convict. Yet though his countrymen may attack Earle for what they regard as his anti-American attitude, few other albums will arouse as much sympathy for America.