[29 March 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Surely there was a point where there was a lot of pressure on Justin Townes Earle. Son to Steve Earle, and named after Townes Van Zandt, there’s two pretty clear thoughts that come to mind. First, how could he not become a singer-songwriter? Second, dude has some pretty big shoes to fill. Over his first three albums, though – especially 2010’s excellent Harlem River Blues – he’s done a lot to ease that pressure, producing great records that may all borrow from rock and folk and country, but none of them sound alike. The younger Earle has proven himself a dynamic songwriter in his own right, so much so that now, with his fourth record Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, he is officially out on his own. Harlem River Blues distinguished him from the burdens of his past, and now he continues to build his own name.
The new record leaves the New York of his previous album behind for Memphis, even if the dust and cowboy boots of Nashville seems the more natural fit. This brief set deals in layers of Memphis Soul, usually delivered in warm, subtle beds of horns and the lean shuffle of these songs. Opener “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” spreads out with the glimmering twang of guitars and the buzz of horns shadowed by sweet strings. It’s an affecting mix, one that builds up the lonesome feel of the song without overpowering it. It’s also a curious opener because, if Earle is trying to distinguish himself, he takes a risk with the opening lines. “Hear my father on the radio,” he sings, but from there we get a rumination on being alone. “Sometimes I wish that I could get away / Sometimes I wish that he’d just call,” Earle pines, bridging the divide between missing family and wanting to go out on his own.
Those ties to home continue on “Look the Other Way”, which begins with the admission “Mama, I’m hurting.” It’s a livelier version of the country-soul of the first track, with the horns carving out cleaner bleated hooks, and showing Earle comfortable in this new shift in his sound. The title track rounds out a strong start with a maudlin ballad that glides, not on a brittle acoustic, but rather on a ringing, clean electric guitar and airy organ playing. Like the other songs, it looks back on regret from the past, but the curious twist comes in Earle’s depiction of a girl he’s left behind, stuck with little more than his smell on the sheets.
The whole record rides on the bittersweet melancholy of these songs, from the brighter barn-stomp of “Maria” to the barely-there quiet of “Won’t Be the Last Time”. Once again Earle proves himself a compelling songwriter, even if he deals in the heartache and romantic lonesomeness of his country and folk forefathers. He sings with plainspoken conviction throughout and rarely slips too far into self-pity. If his mentions of when he was young – since he’s still a young man now – feel unconvincing, the hard lessons learned and the still-resonant confusion sound honest here.
For an album with a title that takes its sweet time, however, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now always feels like it’s in a rush. The half-hour runtime doesn’t do these songs justice, and most feel like they’re just getting going before they just give out. The honky-tonk rocker “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea” could be a rollicking mood changer, but instead the song just quits after two minutes, Earle spitting out the last line of the chorus as if he’s given up on the idea. The warm “Maria” suffers a same fate, where its bed of organs implies a size and scope the song itself never quite achieves. “Am I That Lonely Tonight” ends up feeling downright luxurious only because it lingers on the bass line for a few seconds as the song fades. Closer “Movin’ On” ends up being the album’s most complete moment because, as it’s a song about travelling around, it takes its time and builds up the terrain, giving us (and himself) space to explore in it.
This brevity doesn’t make the record bad by any stretch, but it does make it feel cut off. The warm, gauzy sounds here invite deeper exploration, and instead Earle gets in and gets out all too quickly. As a result, the album lacks the complete musical geography his last album, Harlem River Blues, delivered so convincingly. It’s great to hear Earle exploring the sounds of Memphis on this record, it would just be better if we could hear more of what he found.