After braving the wrath of Fox News Channel with an empathetic ode to John Walker Lindh, the American who was captured fighting for the Taliban, writing a love song for Condoleezza Rice probably feels like just another day at the office. But "Condi, Condi," the much-discussed throwaway track from Steve Earle's new album, is not only spectacularly unconvincing as novelty lust songs go, it's disappointingly vague, slightly nauseating and reminiscent enough of "Rosalita" ("Condoleezza won't you come out tonight?") to make Bruce Springsteen very, very unhappy.
"John Walker's Blues," from the 2002 release "Jerusalem," transformed Earle from a respected alternative-country icon to a right-wing fundraising tool; "Condi, Condi" is such an uncharacteristic, blatant zeitgeist grab, it's tempting to think Earle misses the attention. "The Revolution Starts . . . Now" is in every other way a companion piece to "Jerusalem." Both feature sharp, simple ruminations on Middle Eastern wars and the young men who fight them; both are even jangly country-rock records with Emmylou Harris duets.
The songs "Home to Houston" and "Rich Man's War," twin tales of American soldiers in Iraq, are close kin to "John Walker's Blues," another story of a man bound up by circumstances. "Rich Man's War" can also trace its roots to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son," though while that song packed a visceral punch both musically and lyrically, "Revolution" is too often content to settle for one or the other.
It's a good album that could have been a great one, if it weren't such a mess: Love songs not only compete for attention with political songs, but with Earle's spoken-word recitation of a passage from "Henry V" (a nice touch, though it might have fared better opening or closing the disc rather than sandwiched incongruously in the middle). Elsewhere, "F the CC," one of those topical songs bound to seem like a relic in six months, finds Earle railing against the president, the FCC, the FBI and the CIA with seemingly little purpose, unless he's trying to get audited.
Earle can effortlessly shift gears between the solemnity of "The Gringo's Tale," the story of a U.S. operative gone bad, and the cheesy frivolities of "Condi, Condi." Whether he actually should, whether one lessens the impact of the other, is harder to say. "Revolution" sounds great, at least: It's a frisky combination of early-'90s-reminiscent alternative country and shuffly, Keith Richards-style rock. While it isn't the record it might have been, much of it is literate and sympathetic in the way the best Earle efforts can be.
Earle, an anti-death-penalty activist and recent playwright, is capable of fathoming impressive lyrical depths when he wants to, which makes the title song (which functions as both the opening and closing track) even more frustrating. With couplets like "Just follow your heart, the revolution starts now," it's light on specifics (Does he mean right now? After lunch?) and heavy on bland, can't-we-all-just-get-along-style platitudes. If you promise a revolution, you had better deliver.