For Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, his fourth album in just over four years, Justin Townes Earle takes yet another stylistic turn, leaning on the brushed drums, Hammond B3 organ fills, and horn sections that signify Memphis soul. Because so much of his music deals with matters of identity, Earle’s restlessness can work to his advantage, with each of his albums giving the impression that he’s wrestling with a slightly different cadre of demons. Unfortunately, Nothing’s Gonna Change is so uniformly dreary and banal in its production that it suggests Earle was trying to lull his personal demons to sleep.
A deeply disappointing album, especially coming off the glorious high of 2010’s Harlem River Blues, Nothing’s Gonna Change spends the bulk of its brief running time on the kind of dour, self-serious songwriting that entirely too many Americana artists mistake for depth. Lead single “Look the Other Way” shuffles along a pedestrian midtempo groove, without any particular point of view to elevate its sad-sack narrative. The title track plays like a dirge, as Earle mumbles and mopes his way through a performance that doesn’t scan as emotionally bereft so much as it suggests the singer was physically unwell when he recorded it, and a tacky, poorly mixed horn section simply isn’t enough to bring any semblance of “soul” to the track.
As co-producer alongside Skylar Wilson, Earle is responsible for the album’s rote style. The Southern-soul signifiers are used in the most clichéd ways, from the muted trumpet on “Down on the Lower East Side” to the Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano on “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea,” the album’s lone uptempo cut, to the organ flourish that opens “Memphis in the Rain.” That the album’s mixing so often foregrounds these elements (the organ fills on “Maria” are actually louder than the lead guitar line) only makes the lack of creativity all the more glaring. Earle’s dabbling in acoustic blues and old-timey string-band music on his earlier albums was consistently in service to his material and showed Earle’s willingness to take risks with less conventional choices. Here, his every choice is obvious and predictable.
Only a handful of isolated moments convey the same attention to songcraft and the clear perspective that have made Earle’s previous albums so captivating. Opener “Am I That Lonely Tonight” is as candid and insightful as any of the songs he’s written about his complicated relationship with his father, and “Movin’ On” strikes the same balance between self-deprecation and optimism that made songs like “Harlem River Blues” and “Hard Livin’” distinctive. But on far too much of Nothing’s Gonna Change, Earle sounds like he’s singing some of Ryan Adams’s most quarter-assed lyrics while hiding behind a brass section.