Justin Townes Earle weathered his first year in the international spotlight with a mischievous composure that mirrors his personality. A rapid talker, he rolls off colorful phrases and engaging opinions with disarming bluntness—a trait that also enlivens his acoustic songs, which range across jaunty swing, sprightly blues, Texas shuffles and emotionally revealing songwriter fare.
As the son of fire-starting singer-songwriter Steve Earle, the Nashville native also navigated, with offhand aplomb, a year of nonstop questions about personal and family issues. Like all performing offspring of successful musicians—of which Nashville owns more than its fair share—Earle not only had his songs dissected for bloodline influences, but dealt with comparisons between his recent sobriety, which came after a death-defying addiction, with that of his father's, which at one time had assumed similarly lethal levels. Both son and father dealt with the private-life questions with a flair for offering memorable quotes, and they shared national interviews where they openly discussed their at times combative relationship.
With the release of his new album, Midnight at the Movies, Earle might have looked forward to those particular personal issues dropping down the list of what interviewers ask. But he's not the kind of guy who's going to let a pointedly provocative song idea drop just because it might create some discomfort, and a centerpiece tune on the new album guarantees that the Freudian pricking won't end yet. "I am my father's son," he sings slyly and deliberately at the start of "Mama's Eyes." "I've never known when to shut up. But I ain't fooling no one. I am my father's son."
The song concisely cuts to the heart: He doesn't always get along with the old man, he sings in a laconic voice, nor has he tried to make their relationship easier, even as he acknowledges they share much in common and there's been a degree of pain involved. Three-quarters through, however, the gently loping tune takes a surprising turn. Earle suddenly brings up his mother Carol, whom his father divorced in the mid-1980s, and who rarely gets mentioned in interviews. The young singer cites how he has his mother's long, lithe frame and her easy smile. Then, in the late-arriving punch line, he adds, "I still see wrong from right, because I've got my mama's eyes."
That won't stop the questions, but the directness of the sentiment reflects Earle's nervy writing, which doesn't avoid poking into dark areas with a slicing incisiveness. However, the song's arrangement—with its moody, contemporary textures—also illustrates how Earle's musical compass points in a couple of new directions on Midnight at the Movies.
He hasn't moved away from the pre-rock influences that filtered into 2008's The Good Life; the vaudevillian jump and country-blues touches still can be heard in the mountain-music romp, "Black Eyed Suzy" and in the jug-band stomp of "Walk Out." But he's broadened his lens even wider now, introducing a newly modern sound on the opening title cut, which has a dreamy, atmospheric quality similar to a Death Cab for Cutie ballad. He's also focusing more on vivid character sketches and melancholic personal musings, poking less fun at himself and playing down his role as the swaggering hepcat about town.
The title song sets the tone thematically as well. The quietly percolating tune takes place in the kind of decrepit Times Square flophouse that shows late-night movies without any of the let's-have-a-party atmosphere thrown around cult favorites like Rocky Horror or Animal House. It's a place miscreants, oddballs and insomniacs go to hide in public, and the song's subject paints himself as a lonely fellow who can't make a connection even when it sits next to him and holds his hand.
Throughout, Earle once again reveals his knack for telling details and vibrant wordplay, and he continues to show that acoustic music can be spirited and celebratory as well as introspective and blue. "Halfway to Jackson" is a full-steam-ahead train song that's more Big Bill Broonzy than Johnny Cash, and "They Killed John Henry" pairs sunny, melodic fingerpicking with tragic lyrics, sounding a lot like a tune that might have been plucked by Doc Watson or Mississippi John Hurt. "What I Meant to You" sets a breezy, high-stepping rhythm powered by banjo and steel guitar that's reminiscent of Leon Redbone, complete with a whistled solo.
Likely to get the most attention is Earle's lone cover tune, a bouncing take on The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait," with a mandolin taking the song's signature guitar run and bringing out all of its hoedown possibilities. The choice signifies that the dissipation and surreal quality of being a traveling musician isn't limited to rock 'n' rollers.
Once again, Earle sounds most like his father while opening his heart on the ballads, where the emotion-packed words emerge through a wry tone that's both confessional and conversational. "Someday I'll Be Forgiven for This" makes good use of the narrator's acceptance that apologies won't be coming soon, while "Here We Go Again" suggests both coming together and parting can never quite be as clean as they should, once they've happened too often in a lifetime.
Throughout, Earle works like a good movie director. No matter the story he's telling, or the musical dialogue he adopts, it's the authority of his distinctive voice as a songwriter and a singer that makes the tale resonate.
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