On his first four albums, Justin Townes Earle spent an awful lot of time singing about wanting, trying, and—usually, by his own admission—failing to become “a better man” (a term he used liberally on 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now). So much time, in fact, that one began to wonder what he would write about if he ever got his shit together for good. On Single Mothers, we get to find out: more or less the same stuff, only in the past tense.
Earle’s well-documented struggles with drugs and booze, his troubled upbringing (defined mostly by the absence of his father, country legend Steve Earle), and the many women in his life who’ve come and gone are by this point intimately familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to one of his albums. But he’s thus far managed to keep returning to those same themes without the whole act getting stale. That’s partially attributable to the distinct musical evolution he’s displayed over time, moving from the country-folk of his first two albums to the Memphis soul and blues-influenced sound of his last two. It’s also because of his endearing vulnerability as a lyricist. We want him to conquer his demons, even when it seems like he never will.
Well, an extended period of sobriety, topped by a surprise marriage last year, seems to have put Earle in a better headspace than ever before. There’s still plenty of hard living and heartbreak on the remarkably brisk Single Mothers, but for the first time, Earle isn’t in the thick of it. For the most part, he’s looking back on it from a measured distance: “When I was young I used to drink my whiskey straight, no chaser,” he intones on “Wanna Be a Stranger,” which is a little weird considering he apparently considered himself “young” three or four years ago. On the ’50s-style “My Baby Drives,” his narrator sings gleefully about always riding shotgun without dwelling on, or even explicitly mentioning, the most likely reason he has to (a DUI, one would think). And there isn’t one, but two songs about old pictures.
Truth be told, this new perspective does subtract some of the urgency and impact from Earle’s lyrics, like the soul vamp “Single Mothers,” which covers the same thematic territory (“Single mothers, absent fathers, broken homes”) as earlier songs like “Mama’s Eyes” and “Am I That Lonely Tonight” without anywhere near the same specificity or emotional power. This would be easier to accept if Single Mothers didn’t sound so musically thin. Earle has ditched the horn section he trotted out for Nothing’s Gonna Change, leaving him with an ultra-stripped-down lineup consisting of only himself, Calexico’s Paul Niehaus on guitar, drummer Matt Pence, and bassist Mark Hedman. These folks are all objectively excellent musicians, but the minimalist setup doesn’t do many of these songs any favors. A few just sound like basic demos meant to be fleshed out later with more careful arrangements like the ones on 2010’s Harlem River Blues. Rock-inflected tunes like the zippy “Time Shows Fools” and “Burning Pictures,” driven by Keith Richards-style guitar riffs, don’t have much oomph behind them at all, and aren’t helped by Earle’’s chesty, perpetually wounded voice, which is much better suited to tender balladeering than these kinds of songs.
It’s no surprise, then, that Single Mothers is at its best when it’s at its most deliberately spare. Two laments to loneliness, “Picture in a Drawer” and “It’s Cold in This House,” featuring only Earle and Niehaus’s gorgeously waxing and waning pedal steel, are the most emotionally resonant songs on the album, perfectly embodying the feeling of sitting alone in an empty house that Earle sings about on both. “It’s Cold in This House” is also the album’s only showcase for Earle’s captivating, percussive acoustic fingerpicking style. Best of all is “White Gardenias,” a lilting, soulful, and economical love song for his imagined flame-in-a-past-life Billie Holliday (the title refers to Lady Day’s signature adornment). It’s one of Earle’s best songs—and with less material of interest than usual surrounding it, it shines especially bright.