Warning: successful artists with children! If you’d like to see your son or daughter take to the stage, be careful what you wish for. Justin Townes Earle’s struggle to come to terms with his upbringing is well documented by almost everyone except him, but with Absent Fathers, the twin to his earlier Single Mothers offering, he’s joined the Wainwright, Thompson and Cash siblings in documenting the impacts of an upended childhood. Even allowing for artistic license, there’s no denying the wish within these grooves to do some talking of his own about it, to dig deep for a bit of prima facie evidence and understanding.
It’s been a heady rush of inspiration for Earle, resulting in two album releases in less than a year and a new-found ability to bend a lyric to his purpose, hitting the spot between blunt and ambiguous, enough, you suspect, to protect his own sanity and those closest to him. Look no further than track one, side one Farther From Me for a broadside, it’s opening couplet
‘Wish I could say that I know you, ‘cos Lord, I wanna’ understand / Need you to know there’s nothing I want more in this world as a man’.
Over a steady beat and a blues refrain his characteristic broken glass vocal cries
‘Now after all this time, you’re still slipping farther from me’.
He could be in character, but I don’t like your odds at the bookies.
The album is a nicely balanced set of blues rockers and ballads. The music is free-flowing and assured, the instrumentation simple and engaged to enhance the lyric rather than because there are empty tracks on the recording board. As sentiment goes, it’s an emotional dodgem car, careering off the borders with little care for the pain and plenty of abandon. Why is frustration laced with self-pity, the latter upended in a tongue-in-cheek lyric on Least I Got The Blues which addresses the end of a relationship by way of a slow lament – ‘You’re no woman, a woman’s got heart’. That’ll be the blunt, then.
Earle isn’t afraid to poke a little fun at himself but the overall feeling is harsher than a couple of jokes. Regret sustains Call Ya Momma, another spirited rocker that will be great live. The album’s lodestone is Day And Night. The album could be summarised in the song’s key phrase – ‘Day and night, change and uncertainty’. A simple picked guitar line and lap steel provide space for a heartfelt vocal that sums up Earle’s search for understanding in a world that refuses to stand still long enough for him to take stock. It was ever thus, though there is the hint of optimism in the final verse.
Round The Bend has hints of early Petty in its rough-edged boogie, in direct contrast to the bewildered voice on When The One You Love Loses Faith In You, a slice of the 50s captured in a picked chord melody and a vocal that would transpose nicely as a doo-wop harmony or an early Cooke/Redding soul number. Slow Monday sounds like its title, as does Someone Will Pay, a tom-tom propelled track of barely restrained threat. The album closes with Looking For A Place To Land, an internal travelogue that sets out his need to put some solid foundations down. It’s a beautiful yet painful end, evoking the opportunities lost in the years behind him even as he finally admits he may have found that place.
The album is little more than half-an-hour long and fits neatly into the ‘little gem’ category; in truth, its way better than that cliche. Absent Fathers is a clinical dissection of the damage we can do to each other without even knowing it. Together with Single Mothers, it’s a career high.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Out Now via Loose Music (UK Release)
Order via Amazon