Imagine, for a second, being an artist overflowing with things to say. As a creator, it sounds like a dream, but as a listener, it can muddy things up a bit. This is the case with Justin Townes Earle’s new record Absent Fathers, the quick follow up and counterpart to September’s Single Mothers. Earle’s intention was to make a double album, but ultimately he felt that the two were separate works that deserved separate releases. This concept is intriguing, however it’s difficult not to look at both records side by side, and when you do, Absent Fathers is not as strong.
Thematically, they don’t differ much. Both are full of some of Earle’s strongest lyric writing, centered mainly on working through issues with his folks in the aftermath of fast living. But there is accessibility to Mothers that makes it not only a deep, dark look inside Earle’s psyche, but also a genuinely good album.
The difference with Fathers is that the world Earle inhabits feels much less inclusive, and like one we may not be so eager to enter. Aside from the rocking “Round the Bend” and “Someone Will Pay”, Fathers is heartbreaking and glum, and lacking the romance of which Mothers has so much.
This album is less focused, and while it’s brimming with gorgeous, lush instrumentals—crystal clear acoustic guitar and dramatic steel guitar—vocally it falls flat. Where Mothers finds it’s footing in bluesy rock and roll and catchy alt-country, Fathers meanders, as though we’re just listening to Earle needling around in the studio with no clear direction.
Even when the instrumentals grab you, as on album opener “Farther from Me”, Earle’s voice loses you, as it rarely departs from the same, slightly off tone. There’s rawness to his singing that is appealing, as though he’s completely alone and uninhibited, but unfortunately, this emotion isn’t utilized as constructively on Fathers as it is on Mothers. We know Earle is a talented singer, so why doesn’t that come through on this album?
“Why” is perhaps Earle’s best vocal performance on Fathers, and makes you wish you could swap out a few of the songs on Mothers to create just one stronger album. There are great songs on each, so rather than two records, both could easily have been trimmed and edited to eliminate the forgettable songs that never really go anywhere. Mothers proves what Earle is capable of in this next phase of his career, but Fathers detours that potential to strange, middling territory that’s lacking in nuance.
There’s no doubt that these songs come from the deepest part of Earle, and that’s what’s always made him a compelling artist. He’s got an incredible talent for tapping into the darkest corners of his mind and heart and putting pen to paper to make them into songs we love. There is some of that on Fathers, like the wonderful blues song “Slow Monday”, and the tragic ballad “Looking for a Place to Land”. But there’s not enough, at least not for a whole companion album. Here’s hoping Earle can channel his overflowing creativity into a work that reminds us again how much we need him.