Monday, July 24, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1033: Justin Townes Earle

This is the second review in a row of an album released in 2015 and the fourth of the last nine. I guess it was a good year for music. Or it could be…random.

Disc 1033 is…Absent Fathers
Artist: Justin Townes Earle

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? It’s the sequel to the cover for “Single Mothers” (reviewed back at Disc 893). That cover featured two little kids, standing in a park. This one features two adults striking the same pose, but standing in the dark. Maybe the two covers taken together are some kind of metaphor for how all that magic in the world of kids just fades to black as you grow up. Lighten up, JT; the world is a pretty magical place at any age.

How I Came To Know It: I read a review and listened to a few tracks, and it sounded pretty good, so I decided to give it a shot.

How It Stacks Up:  I thought I was going to like this album more than I did. I expected it to finish second, but it only managed to place fourth out of five albums. That means both “Midnight at the Movies” and “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now” both move up a spot.

Ratings: 3 stars

Sometimes the opening track of an album overshadows everything that follows. In the case of “Absent Fathers” this was true, and with a couple years of separation, I now realize that the opening track was so good it made me like the album more than it deserved.

Not that the rest of the album isn’t solid – it is – but there is just no matching that opening song, “Farther From Me.” It is a broadside against poor fathers everywhere, fuelled no doubt by JT’s own complicated relationship with his father, famed but troubled troubadour Steve Earle.

On 2009’s “Midnight at the Movies,” Earle had thrown a few backhands against dear old dad on “Mama’s Eyes”, but it is within the context of praising his mother’s kindness. Six years later, he gives dear old dad his full attention with sharp and hurt-filled lines including:

“Sometimes I wonder if you realize who you’re talking to
Ah but you won’t break my heart again, no
Broke it once, I was too young
And it didn’t mend”

“I’ve suffered for your foolish heart and your desperate needs
And now after all this time
You’re still slipping farther from me”

Those lines are stark, honest and more than a little cruel and Earle sings them with conviction that tells you it hurts him as much to say it as it would for a father to hear it.

Farther From Me” is a tough act to follow, and Earle never again hits the same level on the record. That isn’t to say there aren’t other great moments though. “Why” follows it up with a lyrical lilt and its own share of hurt, and “Call Your Momma” shows Earle turning himself into the target, taking the part of a callous lover who knows he’s being cruel, but can’t help himself.

Musically, the album is heavily influenced by the Delta blues, with hints of country swing. Earle’s voice has the perfect warble for the style, and he knows how to slide in and out of the pocket. Sometimes his vocal is so focused on finding the right rhythm and emotional commitment that he sacrifices clear enunciation. This had me wanting him to pull just a little of that raw feeling back inside and the let the song unfold.

That said, the way Earle sings creates a broken rhythm that is a good match to the subject matter of these songs, which are heavily focused on heartache and relationships well past the point of recovery.

Even on “Day and Night” where Earle sings about a relationship that is still strong, and where his woman has his back through ‘day and night, change and uncertainty’ he still approaches it from a position of wretchedness:

“Once my back was strong
Now I’m on my knees
My pockets are filled
With broken, worthless things”

Makes me want to give him a hug, but I’d be afraid to break him.

A special shout out to Paul Niehaus on electric guitar and pedal steel, who grounds these songs in a place that is mournful, but still balanced against the total despair of Earle’s delivery. If anything, it helps save the record, because while Earle’s melancholy is real, the record suffers from a lack of lighter moments. At times, it wallows, and while we all need a good wallow I wish Earle had written a few more songs when he was having a good day.

While this isn’t my favourite Justin Townes Earle album, it is more a matter of personal style (the amateur producer in me wanted a bit more country side, and he preferred old blues and early rock and roll). The way he fearlessly climbs down into the depths of the human soul isn’t always pretty, but the bravery of it all is undeniable.

Best tracks: Farther From Me, Why, Call Ya Momma, Day and Night

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