I suppose if your father is the legendary Steve Earle and your middle name was inspired by the even more legendary Townes Van Zandt, you have a lot to live up to. The good news is that Justin Townes Earle has been up to the task for years, beginning with his debut EP, Yuma, in 2007. While his style isn’t massively different from that of Steve or Townes, he’s managed to carve out a unique place in music history, even within the confines of country, blues, and Americana. While he clearly respects the best traditions of those genres, he isn’t immune to a solid, out-of-format cover tune (the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” is a highlight of his 2009 album Midnight at the Movies) or a refreshing, unique take on a concept album (Harlem River Blues was his elegant, bluesy love letter to New York City). In other words, Earle really can’t be held back by a genre.
The Saint of Lost Causes keeps Earle’s eclectic reputation intact. The album zig-zags around different music styles but never to the extent that it seems distracting or overreaching. The opening title track lopes along in a general mid-tempo groove, with rich, understated production by Earle and Adam Bednarik that actually sounds like the moody work of Joe Henry’s best albums.
But these somewhat melancholic moments certainly don’t overtake the album. “Ain’t Got No Money” is a rowdy barrelhouse stomper punctuated by rousing harmonica. Meanwhile, the slightly more subdued – but no less bluesy – “Don’t Drink the Water” evokes an intimate gathering of musicians around a campfire (although the album was recorded in a proper studio – the legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville).
On “Flint City Shake It”, the tradition of upbeat music paired with lyrical despair continues, as the jump blues – complete with a call-and-response chorus – accompanies the sad but persevering tale of the Michigan town’s economic woes going back decades. “We built Buick cars / GM trucks / Chevy engines / AC spark plugs,” Earle sings, before he name-checks the infamous former General Motors CEO in the painful twist: “Then trouble come in ’86 / When this son of a bitch named Roger Smith / He cut our throat with the stroke of a fountain pen / Been knocked down but we gonna get up again.”
The dozen songs on The Saint of Lost Causes are full of ups and downs – the rail-riding swing of “Pacific Northwestern Blues” is followed by the mercurial, almost cinematic “Appalachian Nightmare”, the chilling tale of a junkie who kills a cop and is filled with remorse as everything comes to a close. “And of all of my regrets,” Earle sings, “The two that trouble me most / I wish I could’ve been better to my mama / And wish I’d never took a shot of dope.”
As on “Flint City Shake It”, the hard times are not necessarily hopeless times. “Over Alameda” is essentially the more optimistic flip side of the aforementioned Appalachian nightmare. Over heart-tugging pedal steel, Earle’s character narrates the tale of a mother dreaming of a better life on the other side of the tracks: “She’d say baby if I could / You know I’d buy us a home / Over Alameda where the green grass grows.”
Justin Townes Earle’s albums have been one musically varied and solidly satisfying release after another, and in many ways, The Saint of Lost Causes can be seen as all those previous albums distilled into one finely crafted collection. The songs all have a feel that is timeless and reverential of the past, while still moving forward along the twisted turns of America.