Album Review: Justin Townes Earle – The Saint Of Lost Causes

In the same way that Justin Townes Earle battled through a mis-spent youth which, by his own admission, he was lucky to survive, his latest album chronicles the complex struggles of an entire nation. As the album title suggests, survival is precarious. The one silver lining to America’s current constitutional troubles is the way it inspires musicians to document these conflicting times. After the more introspective personality of 2017’s Kids In The Street, The Saint Of Lost Causes is a significant shift which attempts to articulate the current American experience. “I was trying to look through the eyes of America,” Earle says. “Because I believe in the idea of America – that everybody’s welcome here and has a right to be here.”

The record opens with the magnificent title track; a smoky, slow-burning refrain is complimented by subtle jazzy tones until jarring guitar incisions punctuate the illusory quietude. There’s a repressed anger on show, something simmering, pushing to the surface and it’s fangs are slowly revealed until it’s coaxed back into submission by Justin Townes Earle’s musical propriety. ‘Ain’t Got No Money’ changes the tone with a more traditional, upbeat blues track about a desperate traveller on the road to New Orleans. Justin’s voice is smooth and authentic; it’s the best he’s sounded, and he’s complimented by a rough-hewn harmonica and coarse guitar rhythms. What happens when he gets to The Big Easy is left to our imaginations as the tone shifts again for ‘Mornings In Memphis’. There’s a country twang to proceedings accompanying the change in pace demonstrating the ambitions musical scope on offer; the shift in timbre and personality also adds a melancholy sensitivity before ‘Don’t Drink The Water’ returns to a more ribald and bluesy address of West Virginia’s water pollution.

The production values are beautiful throughout. The warm acoustic tones of ‘Frightened By The Sound’ rest gently next to JTL’s equally mellow and compassionate vocals but change is never far away and the bawdy boogie woogie spirit returns for his account of Michiganders perseverance through economic and industrial devastation on ‘Flint City Shake It’. There are visual flourishes to admire amidst the authentic harmonies; the jive of the keys and the fuzzy guitar solos thrill, but a return to more sombre stories is never far away. Despite the despondency there is still some kind of hope when he sings, “I’ll keep on fighting because they ain’t licked me yet. Going over Alameda like momma said”.

The boogie-woogie of ‘Pacific Northwestern Blues’ is the album’s weak point; instead of using the genre to provide character and enhance the tale being told, it feels slightly trite. This is a rare blip however and the narrative focus returns with a dark, moody number about a drugstore-cowboy-turned-cop-killer praying for forgiveness. The oppressive colour palette returns and the musical tapestry becomes more immersive, creating a more satisfying, widescreen experience. This faithful approach to style and substance is retained on ‘Say Baby’ which is full of authentic human emotions and expressions of disenfranchisement in our volatile century.

These tales do not end on a positive, instead continuing to identify the disconnection we’re experiencing. Although the denouement is uncertain, what JTL does on The Saint of Lost Causes is reinforce the experiences of the regular folk that slip between the cracks. It’s an unforced and easy going record that doesn’t shock or jar and ultimately that is where the beauty lies; mixing traditional country, blues and folk to western swing, roots-rock and boogie-woogie, Justin Townes Earle champions unexceptional individuals and forgotten about communities in every corner of the country, struggling through the ordinary – and sometimes extraordinary – circumstances of everyday life, but he does so through a humble lens completely lacking in pretension, with an incredible flourish of artistry to boot!

Iain Fox