Justin Townes Earle, perhaps than any other country/folk singer out there, has good reason to be conscious of his genre’s history. The son of legend Steve Earle, he takes his middle name from Townes Van Zandt. Needless to say, Earle has tradition running through his blood. It’s a tradition that many artists struggle to come to grips with, often finding themselves in a revivalist category that pays homage to rather than makes new.
Justin Townes Earle, however, is able to embrace this history and build upon it. His unique voice is both forlorn and confident at the same time. He uses it to casually unfold his superb talent for storytelling with a viewpoint that is both wise and modern, delivering lines that walk a line between heartfelt common sense and poetry.
His newest album, Harlem River Blues, begins with an energetic title track that features a screaming organ and a subtly driving, crunching electric guitar that pushes the song along like train steam. It has hints of gospel revival and a playful theme of baptism driven home when a full chorus sings: “Lord I’m going uptown/ To the Harlem River to drown/ Dirty water gonna cover me over and I’m not gonna make a sound.” This introduction segways nicely into the more personal, “One More Night In Brooklyn,” a simple but gripping acoustic tune that explores the age old yearning for a road trip to the West through the tired eyes of a lethargic Brooklynite.
“Workin’ For The MTA” is a reimagined railway song that breathes new life into an old formula. It tells the story of a subway worker from Louisiana who takes up his father’s profession running trains “from Brooklyn Bridge to Pelham Bay.” It melds the traditional mythical lonesomeness of the American steam train with a modern subway line. When Earle says, “This ain’t my daddy’s train,” he speaks about tradition, but is at the same time able to create his own. While most people would see the number 6 line as a dirty and crowded inconvenience on their daily commutes, Earle is able to romanticize a subway worker and create a captivatingly somber song that wistfully bemoans the plight of constant movement between two set points.
Earle’s songwriting isn’t the only thing that’s grown over the course of his short career. The production on his albums has become increasingly effective with each new release. This does not come from more produced material, but rather a better feel for what his songs need. “Move Over Mama” holds a rockabilly sound that would make Sam Phillips proud. In “Christchurch Woman,” Earle’s singing is given center stage, complimented by quiet harmonies and perfectly timed slapped bass notes. Sparse electric guitar and a Memphis-style brass section let the song’s lonesome narrator pour his heart out as he cinematically waits, “…for a Christchurch woman in the rain.” This is also balanced by humor as Earle laughs the line, “Now I’ve always been a fool for a conversation and a couple of smokes.”
In a short 31 minutes, the album confidently covers much ground and leaves its own unique impression along the way. It is apparent that Earle is equally conscious of the old and new (his most modern country moment is in a line about satellite radio in “Ain’t Waitin’”), but is more concerned with expressing his own voice. On first listen the album can be simply dismissed as pleasant. But, like most of Justin Townes Earle’s material, it has a quality that resonates and bears repeated listening. With each play, Earle’s tunes unveil deeper layers of his songwriting mastery and help a lonesome heart along the way.