The delightfully bespectacled Justin Townes Earle dependably releases a record every year or so, and has done so since 2007. He can be counted on for more than just punctuality, too. Not one of Earle’s records is a dud: at worst, he’s palatable and bland, and at his best, he expertly shines a light into fresh quadrants of the well-traversed territory of outlaw Americana. He comes honestly by his “darlin'”s and “mama”s–the son of Texas songwriter Steve Earle, who gave him his middle name in honor his godfather Townes van Zandt, JTE is the heir apparent of modern country, and despite what’s perhaps an understandable reluctance to fully embrace the Nashville lifestyle, the stuff seeps out of his pores. Every song is a story, piled high with neatly turned guitar work and vocals that can be mournful or flirtatious, contemplative or charming.
Often, in his songwriting, Earle plays the suave but troubled rambler. First there was “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving,” off his full-length debut The Good Life, wherein he balks at romantic commitment and assures a protesting lover that she’s better off without him. Then came Midnight at the Movies, which included the similarly self-depracatory but audibly grief-stricken “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This.” As is often the case, true stories are behind the good lyrics. The years since he released his first EP Yuma haven’t been entirely smooth for Earle, who struggled with drug abuse and an arrest that led him into rehab in 2010.
He’s been sober for a couple of albums now, but his music still dips into the lonely, complicated character that defined the folk singer’s early work. The somber sections of Single Mothers, though, crystallize around the simple and deep-rooted sadness of an abandoned child–as opposed to the empty braggadocio of a loner who just can’t be tamed, not even by the love of a good woman. Maybe this interpretation reads into the title a little too much. The son of an absent famous father, Earle grew up with a single mother of his own.
But the title track–its steady beat and simple, symmetrical lyrical structure–sets the tone for the rest of Single Mothers in terms of gravity and mutedness. Reduced to its essential components, Earle’s songwriting doesn’t always grab your attention the way that his younger, more caddish self might. But there’s a payoff: you get to hear his voice at its most vulnerable.
Which isn’t to say that JTE has totally lost his swagger. “My Baby Drives” provides some rockabilly-ish, dance hall relief from the intimacy of “Single Mothers” and the forlorn next track, “Today and a Lonely Night.” “Wanna Be a Stranger” floats along with all the lightness and insta-nostalgia of small towns you drive through and don’t stop in. As a collection, though, Single Mothers tends towards interior songwriting that favors quiet payoffs over flashy country licks. In fact, it is as if Earle particularly avoided that kind of sexy troubledness that falls to those who walk out of their homes and go wandering, opting instead for the unshowy and exhausted hardship left for the single mothers who remain behind.
Single Mothers dropped September 9th on Vagrant Records, and you can order the album here. Check out the music video for “Time Shows Fools,” off Single Mothers, below!