Justin Townes Earle: The Saint of Lost Causes
Justin Townes Earle’s entire catalog has garnered critical acclaim stretching all the way back to his 2007 debut EP, Yuma. I think we’ll find that The Saint of Lost Causes is his best yet. It’s not as personal as the companion albums, Single Mothers (2014) and Absent Fathers (2015) or Kids in the Street (2017), but it is certainly emotional. JTE has been through some shit in his life and the tone of his former albums is evidence of that. You can tell from his albums up to the previous, Kids in the Street, he was drawing from that personal darkness. The son of alt-country rocker, Steve Earle, Justin was raised by his mother and spent most of his formative years in and out of rehab, attempting to battle addiction. With his newest release, The Saint of Lost Causes, Earle takes a more outwardly look at the world we live in. He attributes this change in perspective to his new found sobriety, recent marriage and fatherhood.
The Saint of Lost Causes may be a different perspective to JTE’s song writing, but its themes are definitely just as heavy. Without getting overly political, Earle tackles the social issues that everyday Americans are facing. Even with the elder Earle absent most of his adolescent years, it’s easy to see that Justin is very much his father’s son. As we know, Steve Earle has made much of his own music about social and political issues. Justin has carved out his individual singer-songwriter niche by drawing from more personal accounts, so as not to be closely compared to his father’s own music. Justin Townes Earle has made this album about awareness and empathy while calling to light the hardships that Americans have endured in recent decades. He believes that everyone should feel welcome in this country. Rather than getting full-tilt political with his songs, JTE focuses on social consciousness and the need for the average Americans to take responsibility for improving the condition of the country.
Driving most of the sound on this record is a variety of blues style music interweaved amongst Earle’s usual Americana roots-music sound. The first track I had heard a few weeks ago was the title track, “The Saint of Lost Causes.” I was immediately drawn to the message in the song. There are so many anecdotes about being afraid of the “wolves” in our lives, but JTE points out that maybe it’s the shepherd we need to be weary of. This narrative is laid down right out of the gate in the second verse. “It can be hard to tell / Might find a wolf in shepherd’s clothes / Now and then you’re going to find sheep.” Followed up with, “If you really stop and think / Throughout time / Between a wolf and a shepherd / Who you think has killed more sheep.”
The first track is a somber yet rhythmically catchy tune that sets the stage for the remainder of the album’s narrative. Picking up tempo with the second tune, “Ain’t Got No Money” is a harmonica and acoustic guitar-heavy, foot stomper about scraping up enough cash to get to New Orleans. The arrangement instantly transports you to the sounds rolling off of NOLA’s Frenchmen or Bourbon Streets. I can almost smell the beignets and stale liquor that permeate the air throughout the French Quarter.
One of my favorites from the 12-song set is the third track, “Mornings in Memphis.” The album as a whole may have a heavy tone, but Earle lightens the mood with a melodic tune about finding your center and being present in the moment. It’s those instances in life that are all too few and far between. The song is a nice reminder to embrace those chances as often as possible.
Now that your mind is clear and aware, JTE brings you back to reality with the next few tracks. This is where the social issues really take center-stage. “Don’t Drink the Water” is both metaphorically and literally poignant. There are parts of West Virginia and Kentucky where, several years ago, chemicals from coal mining operations were spilled into the rivers making the water unusable. Getting more press and recognition, we know about the water crisis that has more recently affected Flint, MI. While on the subject of Flint, MI, let’s go right into the sixth track from the album, “Flint City Shake It.” This boogie-woogie style tune is based off of the derailment of the automotive industry in Flint. There is a message of hope in the song about how the fall of the General Motor Company, under the watch of Roger Smith, slit the throat of this once booming city. The people of Flint have faced the hardest of adversities: failed economy, unsafe water, sharp increase in violent crimes; yet they are determined to beat the odds and thrive again.
“Appalachian Nightmare” paints the bleak picture of reality that is the ‘Opioid Crisis.’ It’s a fictional account of an all-too-real story about the slippery slope many folks of the Appalachian region have fallen down into. Earle transports us to many different regions of the country where more hardships are being faced every day. In “Over Alameda,” a mother dreams of a better way of life for her family outside of the Jordan Downs housing projects of south-central L.A. as we watch the hope unfold through her son. “There is nothing for a boy of color but to fight / I’ll keep on fighting because they ain’t licked me yet / Going over Alameda like momma said.” The Puerto Rican character in “Ahi Esta Mi Nina” meets his daughter for the first time after his release from prison, and is filled with remorse for the time he has missed.
The moodier, folk-sound driven tune on the LP, “Frightened by the Sound,” is another that I have given much repeated play. The airy pedal steel and acoustic guitar composition makes for a more stripped-down sound in contrast to the lively blues beats the song is inserted between. The arrangement envelops the listener in the climate of the song. Much like the unstable atmosphere of a storm building, the lyrics suggest the tribulations that can form in relationships. I feel the lesson here is to not let the inevitable storms of life destroy what you have built. Seek shelter and stability in each other. Another encouraging message among the solemn and weighty subject matter of the album.
Justin Townes Earle considers himself a singer-songwriter, and prefers to share his music in an acoustic setting. I think the style of this compilation of songs is exactly what many singer-songwriters yearn to achieve with their storytelling. Such a storyteller can bring to the surface, the realities in which we live and the sacrifices that make us who we are, yet remind us of the hope needed to face those matters and overcome those challenges. Earle will be bringing these stories to life in an acoustic setting across various parts of the US, UK, and Europe through September. Those dates and locations may be found by visiting https://www.justintownesearle.com/tour
The Saint of Lost Causes is set to release, May 24, 2019 via New West Records. After recording his last album in Omaha, NE with producer, Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, Justin returned to familiar territory to record the latest album of all original songs. Earle recorded The Saint of Lost Causes with longtime producer, Adam Bednarik, in Nashville’s Sound Emporium Studios. Along with co-producer duties, Bednarik engineered and played both upright and electric bass on the album. JTE and his family currently reside in the Pacific Northwest, but Justin grew up just blocks away from the iconic Nashville studio where he recorded this album. Also appearing on the album are longtime collaborators, guitarist Paul Niehaus and Cory Younts on harmonica, piano and background vocals, Jon Radford on drums and percussion, and Joe V. McMahan on guitars. You can find The Saint of Lost Causes on compact disc, all digital platforms, and on standard black or colored vinyl from New West Records.