When you consider that Steve Earle is an established master of the grand gesture and the artfully flipped bird, it follows that the Hardcore Troubadour's move to New York City after 30 often tempestuous years in Nashville could have turned into a real pissin' party.
But funny things happen when a man grows older and wiser, especially if he's got an energizing new hometown, a hot, honey-throated redhead by his side (singer/songwriter Allison Moorer, esposa numero ocho if memory serves) and enough irons in the fire to launch a decent blacksmithing business. Suffice to say that Earle takes the high road to Manhattan on Washington Square Serenade, and delivers in the process one of the most consistently rewarding--and dare I say, thoroughly adult--records of his storied career.
Inspiration and gratitude intertwine like sinew and bone throughout these dozen songs, consistently underscoring themes of romantic redemption and the invigorating power of a community in constant, crazy motion. There's absolutely no mistaking the sound of a guy who's not only spindizzy in love with both a new woman ("Sparkle And Shine," "Days Aren't Long Enough") and a Big Apple ("City of Immigrants"), but also feeling recharged fervor for a set of truly democratic ideals that men of his age and station all too frequently cash in for golf clubs and a priority list carved in decorator marble by the Wall Street Journal. "Steve's Hammer (For Pete)" says it all, and listeners who require further explanation or prefer a less politically engaged brand of Americana should probably seek fulfillment elsewhere.
Appraised in straight-up musical terms, the album consciously evokes the Greenwich Village-rooted, early-1960s folk boom and dawn of folk-rock with a decidedly modern twist. Recorded at Electric Lady Studios (the fabled 'House that Hendrix Built') in NYC and produced by Dust Brother John King, songs such as "Tennessee Blues," "Down Here Below," "Satellite Radio," "Come Home to Me," and the aforementioned "City of Immigrants" crackle and pulse under an acoustic string band framework like hillbilly/hip-hop love children.
If Washington Square Serenade were simply a romantically rejuvenated troubadour's emphatic but graceful farewell to landmarks past, minus the driven activist's clarion call to renew the promises of melting pot America deferred, it would provide more than most for the buck. But the record fires clean and true on both cylinders and these days it don't get a whole lot better than that, folks. • Mike Thomas