Steve Earle | J.T. | (New West)
Four and a half stars out of Five
It’s inarguable that the most tragic circumstance that any parent can encounter is the death of a child. When Steve Earle’s son Justin Townes Earle died a couple of months ago from what’s now believed to have been a drug overdose, it must have been particularly painful for the elder Earle, especially given the fact that the two were estranged for much of his son’s life. For a brief time at the dawn of his musical career, Justin served an apprenticeship in his dad’s band before being booted out after his drug problems worsened to the point where he was unable to effectively function as far as the job at hand.
Over time, it got to the point where father and son would barely acknowledge one another and they’d often pass like two ships in the night when sharing the same venue. In recent years however, the relationship improved to the point where a reconciliation was reached. In an interview yours truly did for No Depression a few years ago, Townes acknowledged that the two had bridged their divide, at least to a certain point.
“Oh yeah, we talk,” he suggested at the time. “Our relationship is fine, but I think it will always have its edge. We have a strange past and we’re both in a business that has a certain amount of ego, a certain amount of ‘I know that I can do this.’ It’s inevitable that it will lead to a certain amount of personality clash.”
Given that problematic proposition, it’s also inevitable that his son’s passing would affect a varied emotional response. The grief is undeniable, but with J.T., Earle’s new album that mostly consists of Justin’s own originals (save the final song, “Last Words,” written by the older Earle as a final farewell), the mood is surprisingly upbeat.
Accompanied as always by his erstwhile backing band the Dukes, Earle emphasizes an energy and enthusiasm that belies any sense of sadness and despair. That’s especially evident on such rowdy and rambunctious selections as “I Don’t Care,” “Maria,” “They Killed John Henry,” and “Harlem River Blues,” each of which come across like jaunty hoedowns of sorts, eager yet unassuming. Credit the Dukes with providing that propulsion, and, one might suspect, the therapeutic relief needed to give Earle the needed impetus to complete the project.
That said, J.T. is not without its more sobering moments. The somber drone-like effect accompanying “Far Away in Another Town” and the regret and remorse found in the sadly prophetic “Turn Out My Lights” (“I can see you in my dreams”) underscore the trouble and turmoil that J.T. was forced to contend with all too often both personally and professionally. Still, it’s left to that closing coda “Last Words,” for Earle to fully express the loss and longing left in the wake of his son’s passing.
“I was there when you were born,” he sadly sings. “The last words from me were ‘I love you too.’” He goes on to lament the confusion and conflict which inevitably took its toll: “I don’t know why you hurt so bad. I just know you did and I feel so sad…You made me laugh and made me cry…I loved you for all your life.”
Indeed, the heartbreak is palatable and one can’t help but be moved by both the confession and the candor. Indeed, the poignancy is not without purpose.