For those of you who follow Justin Townes Earle on Twitter, you are probably aware that last December he had a falling out with a record label. To make a seemingly long story short: he had just finished his contract with Bloodshot Records, started working with Communion Records (which is co-owned by Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons), was told that he was supposed to write 30 songs and let Communion help dwindle them down to form an album, felt disrespected and got mad, which lead to them having a nasty split. It was a quick bounce back, obviously, since less than a year later, he just dropped Single Mothers, his fifth-full length, on Vagrant Records. And unlike letting a label pick and choose what songs make one of his records, Single Mothers actually sounds like something you would expect from him: a carefully calculated and cohesive product. And this one dives further into the Memphis soul direction that he went with on the previous album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, with an added country-blues twist.
The thing that I’ve always respected about Justin Townes Earle is that he does’t have a filter. Not in his songs, not in interviews. Artistically, especially on the last few albums, he hasn’t felt the need to hide. He’s been open about substance abuse (he’s now clean), family issues, loneliness, marriage, newfound happiness and everything in-between. Sure, a lot of the subjects of his songs are characters, but there’s always a slice of himself there. And it’s honest. He writes what he knows, what he see, which usually result in seedy stories of the American underbelly, but on this album, there’s some optimism, some humor, showing that his music is growing alongside his personal life.
Listeners who were immediately drawn to Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now are going to be quicker to receive Single Mothers. But if, like me, the catchy folk melodies from his early stuff were more your speed, you’ll probably still going to fall for this one as well, but it might take a few listens for it to click. The opener, “Worried About the Weather” is a breezy heartbreaker in that rich, soulful croon that has become his trademark over the past couple years. “My Baby Drives” is a piece of boogie R&B that sounds like what JJ Cale might have if he’d of grown up in Tennessee. “Wanna Be a Stranger” seems like the sweet spot where he brings his humble, sparse singer-songwriter past together with his rich, layered present and it’s a song that seems to get better with every listen. “White Gardenias” is a Billie Holiday-inspired, melancholy bit of loneliness that makes you remember that he’s one of the best young Americana songwriters in the game.
Justin Townes Earle’s musical evolution has seemed incredibly natural since he released his debut EP Yuma in 2007. He’s almost released an album a year and each of them is different, but more in an inch-by-inch sort of way, where he carefully tweaks his sound instead of trying to reinvent himself. What we’re seeing here with Justin Townes Earle is an artist finding his sound, not an artist who’s simply trying to find a way to stay relevant.