Album Review: Justin Townes Earle “Absent Fathers”

cover of Justin Townes Earle's Absent Fathers. He stands next to a woman, the background is sparse Justin Townes Earle’s sixth studio album, Absent Fathers, gets right down to brass tacks. The estranged son of alt-country rocker Steve Earle, Justin is no stranger to songwriting about familial strife.

He pulls no punches in the opening track, “Farther From Me”, letting his famous father know just how he feels about their relationship. The pain of “So many nights, so all alone, coast to coast haunted by the ghost of a child’s hopes” has left him emotionally exhausted from the process of trying to forget but knowing he’ll “never be that young again”. The catchy refrain and its almost groaned delivery leave nothing to the imagination. It’s difficult to release the pain of the past, especially when that pain is accompanied by a continuing sense of neglect. This concept seems to be the thesis statement of “Absent Fathers”.

Justin Townes Earle, now 33, is at a turning point in life. He’s spent over a decade on the road, playing music, writing songs, struggling with addiction and incarceration, fighting with his namesake, and gradually approaching sobriety and balance. Married, but not settled and still childless, Justin seems to be reflecting on his own journey, attempting to come to peace with problems internal and external.

After the opening track the album turns its focus towards romance — how the history of one’s actions towards a partner and the guilt for those actions often create an endless cycle of expectation, negative behavior and self-flagellation. These songs tend to be a back and forth of blame– pointing at partner, then self, then partner, and back again. Justin’s voice, soulful and world-weary, leads the way in the arrangements, strongly complemented by Paul Niehaus on pedal steel and Mark Hedman’s melodic bass lines.

“Call Ya Momma”, while missing the background singers and horn arrangements of previous records, is a back-beat soul standout track. Earle’s low-blow lyrical accusation of “You said I could never stand to be alone, look at you now standing full grown, and you need to call your momma and tell her ‘come and carry you home’” reveals his own fear of loneliness and abandonment. While the accusation is not an unfair one, (especially considering the barb thrown from his lover) it carries a sense of self-awareness not seen on previous records. The loss, heartache, addiction, and back-and-forth blame-pointing is all a strong reflection of the relationship between Justin’s own mother and father. He seems to be asking himself if he is capable of being a decent partner, or potentially father, and thereby breaking his own family’s cycle.

The confessional lullaby “Looking For A Place To Land”, a slow-tempo fingerpicked folk crooner, concludes the album, and represents a turning point in Justin’s life, career, and mindset. The many years and  the hard mileage have left this man seeking stability.

Absent Fathers stands apart as Earle’s best confessional work to date (even compared to companion LP Single Mothers), but it also seems hollow as an LP, clocking in at only 32 minutes. It features several songs that seem like throwaway efforts, formulaic repeats of previous material. The arrangements are solid, but releasing two separate albums instead of a double album seems like more of a marketing decision than an artistic one. Both Single Mothers and Absent Fathers are chock-full of mid-tempo alt-country tunes. The instrumentation hardly differs track to track, and while it’s easy to appreciate consistency, it’s also easy to get bored by it. These two records should have been a single LP and an EP of B-sides, to be flat honest. Both albums suffer from predictable country songs that induce the feeling of boredom most associated with hitting the “next” button. This is a problem. The industry has come to expect better from someone with Justin Townes Earle’s pedigree. Maybe he doesn’t give a shit. If that’s the case, and the throwaway songs are Justin’s way of making a quota and moving on with life, then he’s no different from the rest of us. The man knows his flaws, his issues, and his strong suits, and isn’t afraid to share all of them.

Keepers:

  • “Farther From Me”
  • “Call Ya Momma”
  • “Looking For A Place To Land”

-Jeb

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