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Album Review – Justin Townes Earle’s “Absent Fathers”

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If album titles could speak of the wounded heart of an artist, Justin Townes Earle’s latest installment, “Absent Fathers,” would be screaming humbly from a Nashville rooftop. This 10-track album is the companion to Earle’s fifth studio album, “Single Mothers,” which was released last year. Earl recorded all tracks live with his four-piece touring band before settling them into their parental album positions. Taken as a pair, these albums bare the soul of a boy-turned-man and his journey to solid ground.

“Absent Fathers” softly, but unapologetically, reveals a side of Earle that longed for a stable father figure, one who could have saved him from the depths of addiction and heartache and taught him how to be a gentleman. Sadly, most fathers who leave a son at the age of two years are not typically equipped for such a noble post. Such appears the case for Earle’s father, alt-country artist Steve Earle, who has certainly faced demons of his own.

Despite his life’s turmoil, Earle, whose voice finds itself nestled somewhere between the muddied mumble of Dylan and the rocker rasp of Springsteen, has catapulted himself into the Americana spotlight with a blue collar mix of folk, blues and country. Much like his godfather, the late Townes Van Zandt, Earl’s vocal delivery teeters on melodic spoken word, often with an unpredictable cadence.

On “Absent Fathers,” Earle’s style translates as if he were reading straight from his personal journal — raw emotion with very little frill, yet full and layered. So layered in fact that on the opening track, “Farther From Me,” it is unclear whether Earle sings of heartbreak from a young love or from being abandoned by his father. It is one of the album’s strongest tracks, tacked down by loneliness and suffering, but unfastened by a hopeful and simple guitar arrangement.

Earle’s unique vocal pacing is most apparent on “Why” and “Least I Got The Blues,” two short tracks that maintain Earle’s wide-open narrative, but have trouble finding a strong footing when measured against the others. “Call Ya Momma” is a mellow, bluesy, rock tune that tells the tale of quarreling lovers on the brink of a forever farewell.

“Day and Night” opens with the lonely whine of pedal steel accompanied by lovely finger picking. This track displays the beauty of Earle’s songwriting with striking lyrics of the uncertainty the day brings as the night is put to rest. “Round the Bend” picks up the pace as the album’s truck-stop rocker, evoking images of Earle standing on the side of a dusty country road using the last of his pocket change to call to his jilted lover.

“When The One You Love Loses Faith” brings Earle’s blues influence to the forefront. With his head hung low, Earle sings of the familiar woes that come to anyone who has loved and lost. Gears shift back to country on “Slow Monday,” which strangely possesses shades of a Randy Newman animated tune and sums up the commonplace opinion of the most dreaded day of the week. “Someone Will Pay” is an upbeat revengeful track with a punchy guitar solo interlude.

The album’s final track, “Looking For A Place To Land,” is a somber but encouraging tune that chronicles the trials of a man eager to evolve beyond boyhood dreams and a painful past. With delicate guitar picking and heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics, Earle ends the album with a story unto which his listeners will attach their own past memories and future optimisms. It is in this unpolished openness that Earle so easily connects to his listeners. As Earle’s story evolves, he will certainly continue to find stability and safety within the Americana’s halls and heart.

Collectively, “Absent Fathers” tells just one part of Earle’s multifaceted life story. Even with a first listen to the album, it is clear that songwriting from the soul is therapeutic for Earle. He sings of his mistakes to make amends with himself and creates a bond with his audience that is rooted in honest emotion and a desire to do better. The album itself finds perfection is its simplicity, relatability and underproduction, which lends listeners a clean and uncluttered collection of songs from the emotional pages of Earle’s past.

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