New York City has long been more than America's biggest and most fabled city -- it's a place that symbolizes fresh starts and new opportunities, and there are scores of songs and stories about folks pulling up roots and heading to the Big Apple in search of a better and more exciting life. Steve Earle wrote one such song on his 1997 album El Corazón, "NYC," in which a nervy kid from Tennessee hitchhikes to Manhattan because "there must be something happening, it's just too big a town," and a decade later Earle followed him, moving to New York to escape Red State malaise. Washington Square Serenade, Earle's 12th studio album and first in three years, deals in part with the sights and sounds of his new hometown, from the red-tailed hawk that lives in Central Park ("Down Here Below") to the multilingual chatter of the streets ("City of Immigrants"), while also taking a look back at the home he left behind on tunes like "Oxycontin Blues," "Red Is the Color," and "Jericho Road." While there's a strength in the familiar textures of the songs where Earle remembers Tennessee, there's a welcome sense of rejuvenation in the album's first half as he shares the details of his adventures in New York (which also includes a new bride, Allison Moorer, who lends lovely backing vocals to these sessions and is the presumable inspiration for "Sparkle and Shine" and "Days Aren't Long Enough"), and the expressionistic imagery of "Down Here Below" and "Satellite Radio" works beautifully in this context. After producing his last few album himself, Earle turned those chores over to Dust Brother John King for Washington Square Serenade, and King brings a welcome collision of the traditional and the contemporary to the music, facing scratchy drum loops against mandolins and dobros while letting a folky simplicity carry the day when it best suits the song, and the sound is crisp and forceful throughout. Washington Square Serenade ultimately sounds a bit less focused than its immediate predecessors, the politically minded Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts...Now (despite the presence of "Red Is the Color" and "Steve's Hammer"), but it also finds Earle trying out some new tricks both as a performer and a songwriter, and it's exciting and encouraging to hear him exploring fresh turf after two decades of record-making, and there's lots of fine music to be had on this set.