Album Review: Single Mothers by Justin Townes Earle
Very Good, Based on 9 Critics
Paste Magazine - 89 Based on rating 8.9/10
Nashville-based Americana pioneer Justin Townes Earle has followed a meandering route of reinvention on each of his five full-length albums and lone EP. He’s moved from the classic honky tonk of 2008’s The Good Life through phases of country, rockabilly and soul along the way to 2012’s near perfect Memphis Horns-inspired Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. And yet, in some ways, Single Mothers feels like a continuation of Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now.
One of the most winning qualities about Justin Townes Earle's music has been its modesty; his best work is dominated by an easy, unforced groove that's part Memphis and part Nashville, and the music doesn't get in the way of the lyrics but glides side by side with a subtle insistence. While Earle generated a cool Stax-gone-acoustic sound on 2012's Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, 2014's Single Mothers eases back into a spectral, middle-of-the-night sound, with Earle backed by a low-key three-piece band and the pedal steel guitar adding a mournful tone to most of these songs of lonely lives and broken hearts. (The simple approach matches the album's brevity, which comes in a mere 30 minutes.
The last half-decade for singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle hasn’t exactly been smooth, despite his solid musical output. After he released his gospel-tinged Americana album Harlem River Blues in 2010, an altercation in Indianapolis with fans and venue staff, as well as his subsequent arrest and media fallout, was the catalyst for Earle to cancel his tour to get treatment for an ongoing struggle with drugs and alcohol. He sobered up for his final album with his longtime label Bloodshot Records, 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, a Stax-influenced blend of soulful folk and country.
For those of you who follow Justin Townes Earle on Twitter, you are probably aware that last December he had a falling out with a record label. To make a seemingly long story short: he had just finished his contract with Bloodshot Records, started working with Communion Records (which is co-owned by Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons), was told that he was supposed to write 30 songs and let Communion help dwindle them down to form an album, felt disrespected and got mad, which lead to them having a nasty split. It was a quick bounce back, obviously, since less than a year later, he just dropped Single Mothers, his fifth-full length, on Vagrant Records.
His label says he's married and recently sober, but the only hint of new-found domestic contentment on Justin Townes Earle's fifth album is peppy rock 'n' roller My Baby Drives. Beyond that, Single Mothers is stacked with the kind of soulful, desperately lonely ballads that Earle is known for, songs like Today And A Lonely Night and the bare-bones ballad It's Cold In This House. The songs are more sparsely written than they've been in the past, even as Earle draws from a familiar well of imagery: rain and snow, trains, burnt photographs.
Justin Townes Earle has kicked some addictions, but to judge from these new tracks, women still grip him in their throes. "Picture in a Drawer" is a girlfriend-gone crying session directed into the lap of the singer's mom; "White Gardenias," with Billie Holiday's trademark flora and references to her hometown, channels one of her aching ex-lovers. Earle's old-timey country and folk sound tilts toward blues and rock here (the pedal-steeled soul of "Worried Bout the Weather"; the Stonesy guitar swagger of "Burning Pictures").
On his first four albums, Justin Townes Earle spent an awful lot of time singing about wanting, trying, and—usually, by his own admission—failing to become “a better man” (a term he used liberally on 2012's Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now). So much time, in fact, that one began to wonder what he would write about if he ever got his shit together for good. On Single Mothers, we get to find out: more or less the same stuff, only in the past tense.
Justin Townes EarleSingle Mothers(Vagrant)4 out of 5 stars At the end of his new album Single Mothers, Justin Townes Earle dresses down an acquaintance who can’t seem to keep from getting his heart broken, asking him “Are you still starting fires and burning pictures?” Considering that the previous nine songs on the album are devoted to narrators buffeted by matters of the heart to the point of despair, it seems like a question that he should have been asking of himself. Not that any of his fans should be complaining. Had he brightened up and gotten over these wounds too fast, we would have been robbed of the delicious sorrow that permeates the album.
“Absent father / Oh, never offer even a dollar / He doesn’t seem to be bothered / By the fact that he’s forfeit his rights to his own,” sings Justin Townes Earle on “Single Mothers,” the title track of his fifth and latest full-length. Those are powerful words for the son of a famous man to write—especially when his father, legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earle, left Justin’s mom when he was two—and it’s definitely not the kind of sentiment that’s going to gain any fans in the men’s rights movement. Not that Earle would want to.