We all want to believe in the American Dream. We want to believe that each generation will be better off than the generation before. We want to believe that economic benefits, political decision-making and personal health and safety will be more broadly and equally shared in each succeeding decade.
Such optimism is hard to sustain, however, in the face of the evidence. We see wealth and income becoming less not more equally shared. Two of the past five presidential elections have been claimed by the candidate who received fewer votes. Climate change is exacerbating fires and flooding across the continent. Your ability to avoid and/or recover from disease and violence is becoming more not less dependent on the color of your skin, the genitals in your pants and the money in your pocket.
Such a situation presents a challenge for songwriters. How do you take the temperature of this culture without offering a false panacea or an angry rant? How do you measure such large societal trends without resorting to vague abstract nouns, creaky allegories or empty sloganeering?
Two new albums have been especially successful at meeting this challenge. Craig Finn’s I Need a New War and Justin Townes Earle’s The Saint of Lost Causes never once mention the names Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell. They never use the terms “income inequality,” “climate change” or “voter suppression.” Yet they paint a picture of America in the late 2010s that seems truer and clearer than any other we’re likely to get in song.
Justin Townes Earle (Photo courtesy of New West Records)
They do this by narrowing their focus to portraits of individuals who’ve discovered that the happiness promised by, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, church and the American Dream has curdled by the time they reach 40. They never had much money to lose, but they had dreams and now they’re without those too. These characters are the canaries in the coal mine of modern America, crumpling from the poisons in the air before the rest of us are affected.
When Finn sings, “I want to give you something to hope for,” over punchy horns and female “la-la-las,” the intention is sincere but the ability to deliver is doubtful. The song’s narrator has just cashed some checks from a car accident and he’s trying to leave town with Joanie. She’s “been passed around” and “hurt so much [she’s] bored,” but he assures her that there’s something better in the mountains, away from this Rust Belt town with its sticky-floor taverns and nicotine-stained apartments.
We’re only hearing his side of the conversation, but as “Something To Hope For” goes on and on, it’s clear that he’s not convincing her—and it’s not clear he’s convinced himself. What he’s offering seems so small and sketchy compared to the weight of her history—and of his own. After all the romantic betrayals and economic betrayals of the past, this inability to believe in something better may be the biggest betrayal of all.
We also hear just one side of a conversation in Earle’s “Ahi Esta Mi Nina,” which is Spanish for “Here’s My Little Girl.” A Puerto Rican convict has just gotten off the bus in the Bowery after getting released from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. He runs into his daughter by chance and offers to buy her a coffee at the corner bodega. We don’t hear her reply, but it’s clear that she’s resistant and resentful of a long-absent father whose decisions wrecked her family. The narrator doesn’t expect forgiveness; he just wants to share a cigarette and a coffee.
Both songs reflect astonishingly skillful writing. Using just one-half of a spoken dialogue, Finn and Earle evoke a time, a place, a history and dreams so battered that even the most modest version of those once enormous hopes is hard to hang onto. If you want to understand why our nation has become so embittered by the past, so entrenched in the present and so distrustful of the future, these two songs are a good place to start.
Now that the great rock ’n’ roll band The Hold Steady has become a part-time endeavor, the group’s lead singer Finn has carved out a solo career that’s different in sound and perspective. While the band played songs with big, catchy riffs and tumbling momentum about communities of young people trying to find their way, Finn on his own presents quieter, moodier numbers about one or two people, a decade or two older, who’ve lost their way. On the solo projects, the words are out front where they can’t be ignored.
In this pursuit, Finn has found two key collaborators: producer/multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman and percussionist Joe Russo. This threesome has created a shadowy rock-noir sound perfect for Finn’s four-minute stories, which have filled a trilogy of terrific albums: 2015’s Faith in the Future, 2017’s We All Want the Same Things and this year’s I Need a New War.
Justin Townes Earle bears the burden not only of his father Steve’s last name but also of Townes Van Zandt’s first name. Against all odds, he has lived up to the expectations of his birth certificate with a concise, conversational lyric style that distills complicated relationships to three-minute songs. It took him a bit longer to find his musical identity, but on his third album, Harlem River Blues, he crafted a swinging country-blues sound that fit his drawling tenor like a glove.
The lyrics and music locked in on his 2012 masterpiece, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, and The Saint of Lost Causes is that album’s companion. Working with his co-producer/bassist Adam Bednarik, top Americana guitarists Joe McMahan and Paul Niehaus and Old Crow Medicine Show’s multi-instrumentalist Cory Younts, Earle has created a soundtrack for those who have slipped through the cracks of the new American triumphalism.
The new album begins with the title track, a late-night reverie fueled by wavering guitar reverb. The narrator sees himself as “a wounded hound backed into a chain-link fence” and the world around him as “a big mean kid poking me through the fence with a stick.” That’s followed by a bouncy country-blues shuffle, a smart-ass complaint about not having any money. Those first two songs set the template for the whole disc: a ghostly reverie is followed by a funky blues stomp or a snappy hillbilly two-step, six of these quiet-then-lively pairs of songs add up to a dozen in all.
On Finn’s album, the verses tend to simmer with clipped rock ’n’ roll guitars and seething keyboards, while the choruses tend to erupt with horns, female vocals and harmonica. The verse lyrics begin the stories with crisp details of lives going off the rails, but when the big, romantic choruses come along, you expect the stories to take a similar turn to the upbeat. But they don’t—and out of that paradox that fuels the album’s compelling drama. The most Finn allows us is the stoic acceptance of reduced expectations.
“Magic Marker,” for example, is the story of a Desert Storm veteran back home and trying to figure out how to jumpstart the rest of his life. After some hard partying, feeling “wasted, wild and bored,” he does something illegal for a man and makes $16,000. He tries to double his money in Oregon, but gets pistol whipped so badly that he has trouble with numbers, even after the reconstructive surgery. Punchy, cheerful horns come in, but the expected happy ending doesn’t arrive. The narrator, now working at his uncle’s paint shop, stares at the pretty girls but they no longer look back.
On “A Bathtub in the Kitchen,” the narrator is someone who has moved on with his life and doesn’t know what to do with old friends who haven’t. One of them is Francis, who’s asking for a $200 “loan” to keep the landlord off his back. Over the sound of stuttering, sinister synths, the narrator knows it’s money that will go right down the drain and won’t ever be repaid. How much does he owe to the guy who once gave the singer a place to stay when the latter first arrived in New York? The half-spoken vocal shifts to a catchy melody with female vocals, but all the singer can say is, “Francis, do you even have a plan? I can’t keep saying thank you.”
A similar contrast between optimistic music and pessimistic words sparks “Talking to Myself,” the final track on The Saint of Lost Causes. A sweet pedal steel figure and a bouncy country two-step raise expectations of satisfied love and the comforts of home. Instead the narrator is living alone in a cheap apartment with only bad memories for company. He may put on a brave face for the gang down at the bar, but when he’s “talking to myself,” he admits, “I’m in a lot of pain and I need some help, and I don’t get to know anybody else.”
The album’s centerpiece is “Appalachian Nightmare,” which supplies the details of how so many of the record’s characters wound up alone and desperate. This one is a 24-year-old Cincinnati native raised in West Virginia. His daddy kicked him out of the house at 13; at 15 he dropped out of high school and got work at a meth lab. When that got busted, he started robbing drug stores until one night in Morgantown he got surprised by a cop and shot him. Over prickly guitar fills, ghostly reverb and a push-pull rhythm, Earle tells this story is short, dry lines full of the basic facts and the fatalism that nothing could have turned out differently.
None of these are happy songs. These are the stories of folks who had the odds stacked against them and failed to clear the high hurdles. So why are we drawn to them? Perhaps it’s because these songs ring true in a soundscape of so many songs, newscasts, advertisements and social-media posts that ring false. These songs are not trying to sell or spin something, but neither are they trolling anybody. Finn and Earle aren’t softening the facts about these characters, but neither are they blaming or condemning them. They’re trying to inhabit their experience long enough to maybe understand how they got there.
Such acts of empathy are needed in any era but especially in this one, where only winners are celebrated and losers are forgotten. Most of the characters in Finn’s and Earle’s songs are white, working-class folks like themselves, but the songwriters do make an effort to reach beyond their own circles. Earle sings about a Latino ex-con on “Ahi Esta Mi Nina,” and Finn sings of a Latina data processor with a no-good boy friend on “Carmen Isn’t Coming in Today.” On Earle’s remarkable “Over Alameda,” the narrator is the son of a black woman who left Mississippi in hopes that Los Angeles would be the promised land, only to find that California has its own kind of segregation.
There’s not a lot of hope on these albums, but that makes the few glimmers stand out all the more. On Earle’s “Mornings in Memphis,” the narrator is a traveling musician trying to sober up as the sun rises over Tennessee. He may be lonely and hung over as he stands on the bank of the Mississippi, but, damn it, look at how the “muddy water turns to gold.”
Finn’s I Need a New War takes its name from the time when Ulysses S. Grant, twice promoted during the Mexican-American War, was back in Galena, Ill., foundering in his attempts to become a farmer and shopkeeper and wishing there was a new war to showcase his true talents. Finn’s “Grant at Galena” takes place not in 1860 but in 2018. The narrator has the electricity turned off in his garden apartment, so he hikes to the mall to read the new Grant biography, hoping that maybe this is his own Galena turning point.
Finn and Earle aren’t the only ones doing this work. Tyler Childers, Patty Griffin, Jon Dee Graham, Mary Gauthier, Jason Isbell, Patterson Hood, Sam Baker, Kevin Gordon, Ketch Secor, Kelly Hogan, Hayes Carll, Brian Henneman, Dave Alvin, Alejandro Escovedo, Louis Perez, Rhiannon Giddens and especially James McMurtry are creating similarly devastating character studies. If you really want to understand these perilous, bewildering times, turn from the famous and the buzzy to these singer/songwriters, too often as marginalized as the people they write about.