Album Review: Absent Fathers by Justin Townes Earle
Fairly Good, Based on 10 Critics
AllMusic - 80 Based on rating 8/10
It turns out Justin Townes Earle's 2014 album Single Mothers was literally only half the story; Earle completed 20 songs during the Single Mothers sessions, and eventually he opted to release the material on two separate albums, so four months after the release of Single Mothers, Absent Fathers brings us the remainder of this song cycle. The titles would suggest these albums are two sides of the same story, and Absent Fathers certainly is of a piece stylistically with the earlier album, full of songs about busted families, relationships run adrift, and lives stuck in neutral, with Earle's mournful, soul-inflected vocals supported by a purposefully spare rhythm section and occasionally the lonesome cry of a pedal steel guitar. While these songs are not without their moments of wit and bursts of rock & roll energy, Absent Fathers is, like Single Mothers, a downbeat set for the most part, with Earle obsessed with where his characters have gone wrong as both parents and partners, and while there's a good-natured, easygoing drift to "Slow Monday" and some tough R&B strutting in "Call Ya Momma," even these songs have a moody undertow that reinforces the gravity of Earle's themes.
Arguably one of the most heartfelt moments of Justin Townes Earle’s latest record, Absent Fathers, comes from its opening notes. “Wish I could say that I know you, cause lord I want to understand,” croons Earle as he laments over a life spent seeking his father’s attention. Much of Absent Fathers is filled with lyrics like this, shining light upon the foundation of a man who’s been worn down by a broken home, broken hearts and struggles with addiction, yet there’s an unbridled determination to keep pushing on.
Justin Townes Earle’s Absent Fathers is in many ways the mirror image of last year’s Single Mothers. Virtually all of the same elements are here — abandonment, despair, resilience, and recovery — but the perspective has shifted. Take the two album covers: Both show a bespectacled man in a wide-brimmed hat staring with a challenging gaze directly into the camera.
A companion piece to his previous album Single Mothers, released just three months earlier, Absent Fathers finds the son of Steve once again pondering the power, pitfalls and dynamics of family. Given his old man’s chequered history of multiple marriages, drug abuse and jail time, it’s tempting to see most of these 10 songs as autobiographical, but Justin is savvy enough to add narrative filters that feasibly suggest fictions. However, the opening Farther From Me can’t help but be read as an open letter to Earle senior, its laconic country-rock barely masking a tension between the generations, the younger man recalling his parent’s shortcomings, and still unsure about mending fences.
Some of the most poignant albums of the 20th century were acts of creative therapy; Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours come to mind. Those were about truncated love, and so is Absent Fathers, Justin Townes Earle's 32-minute gripe at his father, Steve Earle. On the surface the songs are varied in theme, but even a song like "Why," ostensibly about a woman, sings of abandonment and asks, "Why do you always think the worst of me?" The problem is that Earle's melancholy has taken primacy over his songwriting, which is uncharacteristically generic here, making this subdued and plodding release a career low.
Sorrow, betrayal, breaking up and lingering resentment are inexhaustible sources for the alt-country songwriter Justin Townes Earle. “These old stories always end up the same/The pain is the price you pay,” he sings in “Call Ya Momma,” one of the many breakup songs on his sixth studio album ….
On Justin Townes Earle’s last album, Single Mothers, the folky troubadour was especially intimate, explaining his childhood tersely on the title track: “single mothers, absent fathers, broken home.” That line was the LP’s thesis statement, a recurring theme made more personal by the fact that Earle is the son of country-rock legend Steve Earle, who left Justin’s mother when his son was only 2. Although Single Mothers was originally meant to be a double album, Earle ultimately scrapped that idea in favor of releasing two separate but interconnected efforts. Earle’s sixth full-length, Absent Fathers, is the second half of the recording sessions, coming out just four months after Single Mothers.
Recorded during the same sessions as last year’s Single Mothers, Absent Fathers is a continuation of Justin Townes Earle exorcising the ghosts of his turbulent relationship with his musician father (who, it’s worth noting, also just released a new album, Terraplane, reviewed HERE). But then again, just about every record the younger Earle had put out has been mining that relationship for material. The fact that Justin is such a skilled writer keeps it from sounding like a skipping record.
On Absent Fathers, Justin Townes Earle carries over the country-soul vibe of his recently released Single Mothers, a companion album to this one. (They were recorded simultaneously and nearly released as a double album.) But even as drums and electric guitars propel the music forward on tracks like Farther From Me, the songwriter's vocals lag behind with hesitation, which goes with the territory: he's revisiting a history of broken homes while asking how to get along and find some grounding. Absent Fathers doesn't offer much in the way of answers - it's more a snapshot of a process.
No doubt we should all feel compassion for Justin Townes Earle, whose dad, the renowned but self-destructive singer Steve Earle, left his family when Justin was 2, sparking a lifetime of anger from son toward father. The problem is that Justin is 33 now, yet his sixth studio album is still one of the most misery-filled sets you’ll ever hear. Almost every song has a mournful tone, and too many sound alike: slow, ponderous ballads steeped in negativity.