Two From Justin Townes Earle (Music Review)

The Good Life cover

Justin Townes Earle - The Good Life

There is no doubt that Justin Townes Earle is an excellent songwriter. The only question is whether he is writing the best songs for himself to sing. 2008’s The Good Life may be a short 10 tracks (and 30 minutes), but almost every one sounds like a forgotten country-blues classic. The only problem is that he doesn’t sound like a forgotten blues singer. Earle’s young, clean voice is a little disconcerting, and the baby face on the album’s cover adds to the contrast. These are songs that deserve to be sung by a grizzled, world-weary sixty-year-old, not by a man who was in his mid-twenties at the time.

Admittedly, Earle has experienced all the pain that his songs hint at. By 2008, he had already been struggling with addiction for over a decade, and he’d started his solo career after his father’s band had fired him for being unreliable. I suppose that his family’s musical legacy, and his resulting exposure to music, explains why Earle drew on such different influences than would be expected.

Fortunately, the great songwriting still shines through. This album isn’t the classic that it would be if it had found the right ancient blues singer to give it voice, but Earle and his band still deliver the songs with confidence and skill. The songs cover the gamut from the fun, irreverent “South Georgia Sugar Babe” to the somber, Civil War-tinged “Lone Pine Hill”. The title track turns out not to be about “the good life” at all, but is instead a darkly humorous take on a broken man’s insistence that his life isn’t bad after all:

Well since you’ve left I’ve had no place to be.

I spend most every day doing as I please.

I got pockets full of money. Hear it jingle when I walk.

It’s the good life from now on.

Though it’s hard for releases on the Bloodshot label to get much mainstream press, I’m a little surprised that The Good Life didn’t achieve more crossover success. The somber, traditional sound is pitch-perfect for anyone who misses older styles, and it has little of the punk irreverence that would turn most people off from the typical Bloodshot album. (“Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” is the closest this comes to any sort of outlaw country, but even that’s not a litany of crimes, just a light-hearted warning that people should be glad when he’s leaving.)

Harlem River Blues cover

Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues

Two years and two albums later, Earle did achieve a little bit of that crossover success with Harlem River Blues. Not coincidentally, this is the album in which he has found a style that seems to fit his age and life experiences. Rather than setting songs in the general land of American history or heartbreak, he ties them to his current home of New York City. This is a unique approach: Not many people dare to write country songs about New York. Yes, Earle does say that he feels lost and misses the country, but the implication is that this is truly his home. It is a modern twist on the country tradition, but the assured songwriting makes it feel natural.

The title song is the gem of the album, and probably one of the best songs of 2010, period. Earle announces his plan to drown himself in the Harlem River with conviction, resignation, and a strange joy. The contrary, upbeat nature of the music makes this old-school country theme as fresh and addictive as any recent pop song. Unfortunately, Earle was apparently a bit too aware of how strong “Harlem River Blues” was. In addition to naming his album after it, he also made it the opening track, despite how strong it would have sounded as a follow-up to almost any song on the album. (Seriously: I worked it into a mix CD recently, and its rich opening riff makes an effective transition from just about anything.) As a bookend, the album ends with an off-key reprise that feels more like padding than a reminder of the previous high point.

That’s not to say that the other songs are bad. “One More Night In Brooklyn” follows up “Harlem River Blues” with the declaration that maybe he can learn to live in the city after all, while “Working For The MTA” combines that urban theme with traditional train songs to create a simple but powerful tale of longing. From the somber “Christchurch Woman” to the joyful “Move Over Mama”, he covers a wide range of topics, even if the musical style is a little repetitive by the end.

Unlike The Good Life, this album feels appropriate to Earle’s life. He still covers old bluesy themes like depression or wanderlust (“Slippin’ And Slidin'” and “Wanderin'”, respectively), but now they are definitely rooted in his personal experiences. Over all, the songwriting doesn’t stand up to the high standard set on The Good Life, but the results actually work better because they feel so appropriate for the singer. If this album weren’t so short (10 tracks and 30 minutes, just like The Good Life, if you ignore the reprise at the end) with a couple of fillers, this would be an A-level album. Now that Earle has established his unique path, I expect that he’ll soon be able to apply that classic songwriting to it consistently. When he does, the results will truly be great.

The Good Life: B

Harlem River Blues: B+


 

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  1. December 20th, 2012

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