Justin Townes Earle has always been an interesting artist to me. The amount of stories I’ve heard about him have certainly added to his mystique. There’s been praise for his brilliant early albums and jeers of disappointment on his latest work. Following him on Twitter is certainly an experience, as he can go off on something that pisses him off at any moment. I then read the stories about him going on a rampage at a concert in Indiana five years ago and I came away with a sour taste. I’ll admit it made me disinterested in his music. But then I decided to read the facts about Earle. I read about his tough life and his struggles with addiction. Then I understood who Justin Townes Earle was (I also felt like shit for being so dismissive of his music and him as a person) and it made me eager to listen to his new album Absent Fathers. It’s the follow-up and companion of his 2014 release Single Mothers (I wasn’t impressed by it, which also dissuaded me to listen to Earle’s music). I’ll say this right up front: Earle proves me wrong.
The inspiration behind this album is Earle’s own childhood and growing up without his father, famous alt country artist Steve Earle. No song exemplifies this theme more than “Farther from Me.” Earle questions why his father had to abandon him, messed up his life and how he wishes he knew him more. It’s an emotionally raw song and Earle shows why he receives high praise for his songwriting. I also want to praise how great Earle expresses emotion in his lyrics, something that he continually does throughout the album.
This is followed by “Why,” a short bluesy song about a man wondering why his woman always assumes and thinks the worst with him. You can hear some Motown influences in this song too, similar to the songs on his Single Mothers album. It’s a solid song. The third song on this album is “Least I Got The Blues.” This is a more stripped down song where the steel guitar whines prominently and Earle’s voice is front and center. It’s a heartbreak song that Earle does a great job of expressing the emotions of a man who just lost his woman. This is a pure country song that’s refreshing to hear from Earle, a sentiment many Earle fans certainly share.
“Call Ya Momma” is about a man who knows his relationship with a woman isn’t good, as he says from the start he isn’t up to any good. Throughout the song the man reiterates this and repeatedly tells the woman to call her momma. The relationship eventually comes to an end and Earle brilliantly expresses the heartbreak in his voice. The lyrics in this song do a great job of telling a story. The instrumentation is perfect, as Earle blends country and bluesy rock flawlessly. This song is fantastic and to me is the best song on Absent Fathers.
Earle goes dark and somber with “Day and Night.” It’s a more stripped down song instrumentation wise and once again let’s Earle tell a story with his brilliant voice. This is another song where Earle personally reflects on his hard life and all of the struggles he went through to get to this point, but he’s now happy because he has found the love of his life (his new wife he just married). Again the raw emotion Earle expresses in his voice is quite moving. Earle then kicks the tempo back up with “Round the Bend.” While songs like “Day and Night” and “Farther from Me” will move your emotions, this song will make you move your feet. This is another song where Earle does a great job blending rock and country elements together to make a cool sound.
Absent Fathers slows back down with “When the One You Love Loses Faith” and it’s a song where Earle reflects on moments when he let down people he loves. The instrumentation is more blues than country on this song. I was just wanting a little more in this song, as I felt it could have been more emotional and impactful. Earle isn’t as serious with “Slow Monday,” as he complains about boring Mondays. The instrumentation is simple with the guitar and banjo only playing throughout the song. This is a more of a light song to breakup the seriousness on the album. Even though it isn’t as serious, Earle’s vocals are still seriously good.
“Someone Will Pay” has a similar vibe to “Round the Bend,” as it’s more upbeat and aggressive. It’s a vengeful song where Earle vows to get revenge on someone and he forewarns that the person’s lies will cause someone to pay for his misdeeds. This is again a short song that accomplishes its goal of being a fun and solid country song. The album concludes with “Looking for a Place to Land.” It’s about Earle comparing himself to a plane, beginning life at too early of an age and now he’s running low on fuel, “looking for a place to land.” He flew too high too early as he sings. Now he’s looking to slow life down and enjoy it with his wife. It’s a great way to conclude this stellar self-reflection album.
Justin Townes Earle’s Absent Fathers is an album that pleasantly surprised me with how great it is. I wasn’t expecting it to be this good and I’ll say it once again: Earle proved me wrong. I’m glad he proved me wrong and I’m glad I listened to this album. While this album won’t be the best we hear in country music in 2015, there certainly won’t be a lot of albums that top it. As I say with darker albums like this one, you must have some moments of light so the dark moments mean more. Earle has a great balance in terms of this aspect. The instrumentation and production on this album is pretty damn good and I don’t have any complaints about it. There are some brilliant moments of storytelling on this album and Earle showed you should never doubt him. I highly recommend getting Absent Fathers. I guarantee it will move you in some way.