Arguably one of the most heartfelt moments of Justin Townes Earle’s latest record, Absent Fathers, comes from its opening notes. “Wish I could say that I know you, cause lord I want to understand,” croons Earle as he laments over a life spent seeking his father’s attention. Much of Absent Fathers is filled with lyrics like this, shining light upon the foundation of a man who’s been worn down by a broken home, broken hearts and struggles with addiction, yet there’s an unbridled determination to keep pushing on.
Absent Fathers is the companion piece to 2014’s Single Mothers, an album that introduced the world to a new Justin Townes Earle—sober, married and healthy, full of insight and reflection. Absent Fathers is filled with a dichotomy of unrelenting frustration and unadulterated love. Whether that be for a distant father, an old lover or the narrator himself, it doesn’t seem to matter, as Earle is certainly pulling no punches.
While the album’s primary appeal may come from the rich storytelling in Earle’s songs, the musicality on display is nothing to balk at either. Whereas previous efforts like Harlem River Blues or Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now were filled with densely packed arrangements that swung with a soulful swagger, Absent Fathers is a much more subtle piece. Lap steel lines are pronounced on simplistic tracks like “Day and Night” and guitars smoothly slide into the mix on upbeat tunes like “Why,” turning post-relationship angst into a song that compels the listeners to bob their heads to the infectious rhythm. It’s worth nothing that Earle’s vocal styling adds a particularly jazzy feel to all of these blues-inspired tracks as well; his southern drawl slowly rolls out feeling slightly behind the beat. It makes listeners tune in a bit more intently, honing in on a sense of urgency that many other songwriters just can’t pull off.
For all of the somber overtones to Absent Fathers, there’s still plenty of hopefulness within this record. It’s a testament to starting over and leaving the past behind, whether that be your issues with how you were raised, how you’ve been treated, or how you’ve taken care of yourself. Earle’s release feels therapeutic and comforting. While one track traverses the emotional turmoil of a lover losing their faith in you, the next may be filled with bitterness and disdain for Monday afternoons whilst daydreaming of freedom.
By the time you’ve reached the album’s final track, “Looking For A Place To Land,” you’ll have heard everything from Motown-inspired ballads to bluesy bursts of Americana, but the sparse arrangement on this closer is still the most gripping piece of music the album has to offer. Earle’s voice feels fragile on this track, almost as if it’s been wrapped up in his gently picked acoustic guitar. This intimate song highlights Earle’s nomadic lifestyle and the difficulties it brings. Life on the road is hard; it’s tempting and sometimes it’s likely frightening. The final three and a half minutes of the album are primarily filled with Earle desperately seeking a place to call home, a place that he’s so clearly longed for since his childhood. It’s hard not to crack a smile the first time Earle breaks from this song’s refrain, proclaiming that he’s found himself a place to land. One can only hope that this landing means that he’s as comfortable with self-exploration and transparency in the future as he’s been on Single Mothers and Absent Fathers, because if so then the best of Earle may still be yet to come.