Spin Control

September 30, 2007


  Steve Earle, "Washington Square Serenade" (New West) 6 star

"Bound for New York City, and I won't be back no more / Won't be back no more, boss / Won't see me around / Goodbye, Guitar Town," Steve Earle sings in "Tennessee Blues," the opening track on his 12th album, which simultaneously bids farewell to Nashville as he serenades his new home in the Big Apple, and temporarily parts with the roots-rock sound epitomized by his 1986 debut "Guitar Town." In its place, we get a more mellow country/bluegrass vibe, which is nothing new for the singer and songwriter -- that strain always has been part of his work, too -- except that in his typically perverse fashion, it's produced here by John King, half of the Beck and Beastie Boys production team, the Dust Brothers, and delivered as an oddly shimmering, futuristic, looped and beat box-propelled take on a timeless back-porch sound.

Lyrically, Earle also has turned away from the acidic critiques of right-wing politics that made for some of the best moments on "Jerusalem" (2002) and "The Revolution Starts ... Now" (2004). A content Earle is an atypical Earle, to be sure, but there are also two serious missteps that mark this disc as a full notch below the brilliance of his last two albums. These tracks not only fail musically, they sink amid the hot air of synergistic self-promotion: "Satellite Radio" is a compromised homage to the medium on which Earle just happens to host a show, while the Tom Waits cover "Way Down in the Hole" is not-so-coincidentally the theme song for the HBO series "The Wire," in which Earle portrays a redneck junkie.