Each of Justin Townes Earle’s three albums falls under the broad “Americana” label, but he’s yet to settle on a distinct style. While The Good Life found inspiration in old-timey stringband music and Midnight at the Movies was a moody collection of country-folk, Earle’s latest, Harlem River Blues, looks to acoustic blues as its main aesthetic. Given Earle’s often morose and sardonic bent as a lyricist, the shift toward blues suits him well, making for his strongest album to date.
The title track, which adds a gospel choir and enthusiastic handclaps to its uptempo romp, opens the set with Earle’s point of view perfectly articulated. The music suggests praise and celebration, and Earle sounds downright giddy as he sings, “I’m gonna go down/To the Harlem River to drown.” With details about how his fortunes have turned, Earle keeps the song grounded in traditional blues tropes, even though the arrangement that he and co-producer Skylar Wilson devised pushes the song in an unexpected, ironic direction.
Earle sustains that tone over the remainder of the album thanks to some razor-sharp songwriting. “Move Over Mama” uses some effective double entendres to take the piss out of the No Good Woman who turns up in so many blues songs. Even better is “Workin’ for the MTA,” a song performed from the perspective of a miner who followed in his father’s career path. It works as a respectful testament to the hardships of mining, but it also works as an insightful bit of auto-critique, knowing that Earle has not always had the most straightforward of relationships with his famous father, fellow singer-songwriter Steve Earle.
Because he isn’t afraid to incorporate those kinds of first-person details into his songs in subtle ways, Earle is able to build a complex persona as an artist. Even songs that seem like conventional blues confessions, like “One More Night in Brooklyn” and “Christchurch Woman,” are actually opportunities for Earle to toy with narrative voice or establish a more pervasive sense of place. Earle has never been one to do what he’s told, and the formalism of traditional blues gives him a set of confines to fight against.
Blues also gives Earle an opportunity to show off some solid acoustic guitar chops. With Jason Isbell backing him on electric guitar, Earle’s take on blues is in line with the vintage inspired sounds that John Mellencamp and Ray Wylie Hubbard have put to fantastic use of late. It’s a sound that matches Earle’s calloused, somewhat flat tenor well. Even when he’s singing about drowning himself, Earle sounds more comfortable on Harlem River Blues than he ever has on record. He’s never sounded better either.