Oh, the year was 2002, and a young man named Myles Stocker was…let’s see…eighteen! Eighteen was a nice year. I went to a lot of good parties and felt comfortable with my friends for the first time ever, went on a spontaneous trip to Montreal and drank some more, got together with my first real girlfriend (sorry Kim) and all the advantages that entail entailed. I was busy discovering myself and standing in front of Che Guevara signs and drinking straight vodka like only eighteen year-olds can. Oh, I went to University too, and that was decent. I think that tells you all you need to know about this album!
It was post 9/11, just post 9/11, but pre-Iraq War II, so there’s more peaceniking than an album made a year later. It was a political time to be a musician, and it shouldn’t surprise one to know that this was Steve’s first of two albums as a left-wing rabble-rouser. Muted rousing, mind you. The first four songs are a mini-suite of politicizing, and the closer is an old-timey call for peace in the Middle East, which I guess is better than Steve’s later songs calling for more genocidal violence. And yes, it is a bit tiring and dated (the next album is far worse for that), but I think we shouldn’t trust any musician that didn’t engage in a little left-wing muckraking in the early 2000s. “Conspiracy Theory” is bad-paranoid, but otherwise Only “Jerusalem” goes too far, with that line about not learning to hate in Sunday School being an eye roll.
So is it, y’know, good? Yeah, pretty much. The biggest feature of this album is that it’s very clean-sounding. Kinda slick, really. The worst example is the very first note of the album, a sad attempt to sound “modern” by has a distorted voice whispering, but generally everything is shiny and new. The drums are way high in the mix, there are guitars everywhere in a “filling out all the sound” sort of way and ending in nice little fadeouts. It sounds nice, but it tends to shine up the worse songs while getting rid of some of the best parts of great songs, making all but one song here end up in the middle. The other main thing is that the melodies tend to be unmemorable but the atmosphere and grooves are really good, to the extent that it feels like an album comprised mostly of good vamps.
The mini-suite is the most important part, with two very good songs (one of which has a remarkably bad title) followed by the album’s only bad one, followed by “John Walker’s Blues,” which is in from another world. Batting clean-up, “John Walker’s Blues” is an obvious show-stopper, an outright attempt at understanding a terrorist only months after 9/11, and doing a pretty effective job of it. From that to the album’s best melody to the chorus consisting of half the shahadah (I’d embarrass myself by trying to write the Arabic part and “there is no god but God”), followed by a cacophonous solo, followed by a fade-out with an imam chanting for about ten seconds past the point you’d expecting it to stop until it’s slightly uncomfortable. With the power of a thousand anti-war songs and balls of titanium, it’s easily the standout.
After that the album gets more generic. “The Kind” is cute and catchy, “What’s A Simple Man To Do” is a little annoying but that keyboard line stays with me forever, then there are a few less exciting ones (“I Remember You” is destined to be one of those songs Steve Earle thinks is great and his fans shrug in the general direction of), and the closer is a bit too waxy even for me.
And there’s your album. Oh, but the Iraq War is coming up, so get ready for the expected turn. Boy, imagine if John Kerry had won…9/11 would never have fucking happened! ‘Kay?