Justin Townes Earle is a fast learner. Just over a year after releasing his terrific solo debut, The Good Life, the singer-songwriter returns with Midnight at the Movies, a smart assessment and refinement of what worked best about his first outing. It’s his willingness to challenge both genre conventions and his famous legacy that makes Earle such a captivating, distinctive songwriter. There’s a fearlessness in the way he confronts his famous namesakes on standout “Mama’s Eyes,” when he sings, “I’ve never known when to shut up/I ain’t foolin’ no one/I am my father’s son.” Even more effective and ballsier is “They Killed John Henry,” a traditional-sounding folk ballad that subverts expectations by offering something of a sequel to a well-worn piece of Americana mythology, rather than simply retelling a familiar story.
Earle’s primary points of reference aren’t especially obscure, but it’s how he uses those references that makes Midnight a definite step forward. Drawing from prewar folk and ragtime to vintage country and acoustic blues, Earle is among the few new artists on the roots scene who have forged a sound that is both immediately identifiable and progressive. Whether he’s borrowing the title of a familiar bluegrass tune for his own tale of a prostitute who “works the corner out on the block where she was raised” on “Black Eyed Suzy,” or finding the deep well of heartache on a flat-out fantastic cover of the Replacements’s “Can’t Hardly Wait,” Earle is making choices that help to establish his identity as a recording artist independent of the two men he’s named after.
That his instincts are so spot-on also makes for an album of real thematic heft: From the loner narrative of the title track to the shrewdly observed “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven for This,” Midnight teems with a genuine disaffect and melancholy. A few more hooks might serve him well down the road, but Midnight confirms that Earle has far more going for him than just his lineage.