Justin Townes Earle
Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
Justin Townes Earle is a ramblin’ man. The son of a hard-touring musician who’s become a hard-touring musician himself, he’s moved from Nashville up to New York, and from there to London, with countless stops and shows in between. But his heart and soul remain rooted in Tennessee and its many musical forms: old-school country, hardscrabble Appalachian folk, rowdy rockabilly, and sturdy rural blues. For his fourth solo album, he traveled – spiritually if not physically – down I-40 to Memphis, to absorb some of the Bluff City’s soul.
Many artists have made the pilgrimage before him, but most – including Sheryl Crow, Cyndi Lauper, and Huey Lewis – hew either too closely to local sounds or not closely enough. Earle didn’t hire local soul legends, as Cat Power did for her excellent 2006 album The Greatest, but he does add some slow-burn horns borrowed from Stax and some Beale Street rhythms inspired by W.C. Handy. It’s all grafted onto Earle’s trad-country sound, which hearkens back to a previous era in Tennessee without really leaving the here and now.
Perhaps the most obvious shout-out to the city is “Memphis In The Rain,” an upbeat number that thrums with determined energy, thanks to that rippling organ and jumpy horns. Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now doesn’t sound like Memphis, but it does feel like Memphis, which shows some admirable restraint as well as a deep understanding of the city as a crossroads between so many disparate musicians and traditions.
And yet, especially for such a restless musician, this collection sounds strangely slight and inert, lacking the impact of 2010’s Harlem River Blues. Earle himself sounds ragged and tired, as if he’s singing after a few sleepless nights. Too often the tempos lag and the music plods uncharacteristically, despite so many compelling musical flourishes: the muted trumpet solo on “Down On The Lower East Side,” the spiky guitar riffs on “Movin’ On,” and especially Bryn Davies’ rambunctious basslines, which sound like horn charts played on an upright. They can’t quite revive “Unfortunately, Anna,” which sounds as lifeless and condescending as a Counting Crows track, and the album ends abruptly with “Movin’ On,” which is not quite the valedictory its title might suggest.
But Earle is a frank and careful songwriter, and even when the album drifts, his unflinchingly self-assessing lyrics command attention. Bad behavior has always been a subject in rock and country, yet few artists today are writing with such awareness of the consequences: estrangement from family and friends, creative and professional missed opportunities, romances that are over before they begin, and a generally fatalistic outlook on life. On “Am I That Lonely?” as the horns swell and fade like a sympathetic friend, he hears his father’s music on the radio and wonders if he’d actually welcome a call from his old man. On “Look The Other Way,” he promises a woman – either his actual mother or a lover he refers to as “mama” – that he can change, even though he knows she’s long past caring.
Earle knows enough to write about his own demons in terms broad enough that anyone can relate. So when he sings, “Maybe I broke myself a promise that I never intended to keep,” on “Won’t Be The Last Time,” perhaps he intends it as a comment on his recent troubles – the botched show, assault charges, and rehab stint in late 2010 – and perhaps he trusts his listener to grasp the implications of such a confession. Somehow, Earle never comes across as self-absorbed or self-loathing; he neither makes excuses nor judges himself too harshly. What makes Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now such a harrowing, albeit minor, addition to his catalog is how matter-of-factly Earle presents himself. Wherever he goes, he’s both his own worst enemy, but that defiant honesty remains his most compelling trait.