Justin Townes Earle has never been one for fetishized country songs about trucks and the gal who did ‘im wrong. But even by his own rubric, The Saint of Lost Causes is his darkest, moodiest album yet, stretching beyond the implied limits of his chosen genre and deeper into the roots of Americana.
Opening with a smoky blues crawl, the title track has a slow-swinging Asylum-era Tom Waits feel to the keyboards and a tangy guitar solo that hangs on long after the strings have stopped humming. It’s not the darkest tune on the album, but it’s a more elaborate sound for a long-time fan and lets a new listener know that this is not your pretend-country barbeque music.
“Ain’t Got No Money” returns us to one of his a signature-style tune, a carnival bark over a guitar seemingly doing double duty as percussion, adding instruments verse by verse – a harmonica, extra guitars – with Earle trying to cram in as many staccato words as he can into each line. There’s a synergy that runs throughout Earle’s catalogue, and similarly, while “Memphis in the Morning,” ticks off the classic country clichés – Beale Street, drinking alone – the melody itself harkens back to Harlem River Blues’ “One More Night in Brooklyn,” a sort of sequel to the two lovestruck junkies who populated the sad apartment. He’s out of Brooklyn, perhaps, but is he really free?
“Don’t Drink the Water” bleats a powerful anti-cult/capitalism/anti-fracking message over an easy, working-man blues. “I want some answers before I’m leaving here today,” he sings. There’s poison in Flint, there’s poison in our air and our streams and on our TVs, but we deserve answers. Just as strikers in Harlan County wrote protest songs to sing on the picket line, Earle continues the rich tradition of telling the Man In The Suit & Tie to get fucked.
Sweet pedal steel steals the show in “Frightened by the Sound” and “Over Alameda,” as Earle paints tender, empathetic portraits of working class folks just looking for a better life out west. Traditions upheaved, American promises torn apart, dreams never realized, it’s all here.
The album is more introspective than 2017’s Kids in the Street, heavy on strings and light on the rock-and-ramble. Even the easy sway of “Flint City Shake It” is a little laid back, with a low set of call-and-response backing vocalists set back in the mix, like they’re singing like they’re in a tin can recording booth. It’s a deliberate and delightful touch to give the album a distinctively retro feel without dipping into cowboy-shirt-style pastiche.
Similarly, “Appalachian Nightmare” plays out like an episode of Justified set to music. A junk-and-blood soaked gothica; “You can’t get a bullet back once you’ve pulled a trigger” is as noir a line as James Cain could have written, and it’s just one of a song choked full of them.
The vinyl edition is pressed in a sweet clear blue, with songs on three of the four sides and the Saint himself etched on the fourth. But here’s the kicker: like a prayer, The Saint of Lost Causes best listened to alone and deliberately. It’s too close and intimate to put on when there are others present unless they also plan on listening in silence. It’s a lot to ask the modern, harried soul to lay low and meditate on a record, but listen any other way and it’s all, well, a lost cause.