On his new album Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, Justin Townes Earle carries on the great tradition of writing singularly American songs about both disconnect and the yearning to connect. The long list of such songwriters quickly boils down to those who’ve transcended the American experience to a place of involvement and retrospect: Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, and Jeff Tweedy. With Earle’s latest release, he shows a soul as old as Hank, as tender as Gram, as lovely as Lucinda, and as wounded as Jeff to create an album of sparse beauty. In its sparseness, the album proves the necessity of aloneness in a country disparately marked by movement and stillness.
Earle attempts to fill a chasm made wide at a young age between him and his traveling musician father (Steve Earle). On “Am I Lonely Tonight,” he wrestles with that strain: “I hear my dad on the radio / . . . / 300 miles form the Carolina coast and I’m skin and bones again / . . . / Sometimes I wish he’d just call,” and then asks the question we find ourselves wondering late nights as we listen to sad songs, “Am I that lonely tonight?” His answer is simple but devastating, “I don’t know.” The real answer is, of course, yes. In the moment, there is no escaping the poles of high and low, or from the pondering of how to escape the cycle. There is only what’s left in the battle between the two: the attempt to live simultaneously a semblance of a stable life and a down-and-out one.
The songs, in their composition, resemble America—both sparse and packed full of the emotion of an unsettled, busy mind like a city street buzzing through a wet, sleepy rural-scape. The music fills the voids of empty highways and connects at points—the towns and cities—along the way. The music is in perpetual motion, always moving and searching for a place to stop (home) and yet never reaching that destination. This is Americana Gospel, that which makes sense of the fast and slow, the grand and small, the bittersweet and bitter, but most of all, the sentimental and the stoic. The great balancing act is saying things simply and directly but with visceral honesty in a way that the listener can invest absolutely in the artist’s message. In creating this middle-ground—a synthesis of the corporeal and spiritual—the artist is like a preacher delivering a catharsis which gives us (the listeners) the strength to continue on with day-to-day trifles—waking up, eating, working, etc. If not for the artist’s sermon, such trifles would leave our souls undernourished and doomed to perish. Without the gospel and its preachers, we parishioners would be drowning in a sea of melancholy.
On “Look the Other Way,” Earle claims “I’m looking for the means to pay / . . . / I’m learning, learning to be a better man / I’m not certain but I think can now.” In his gospel, Earle rolls over hills and down valleys all in search of something simple and pure and yet entirely arduous for his type (the melancholic), which is to simply be better and to be happy. Being melancholy is no easy task, as it imposes two modes of attack: fighting the melancholy itself as a means to be happy, and fighting the guilt of perpetually feeling such a way despite having life’s necessities (when countless others do not). In essence, the riddle of melancholy is that of the wheel, as Earle attempts to prove in the final song on the album, “Movin’ On”: “Running’s . . . left me most days wondering if I’ve ever really learned a thing at all / But I’m trying to move on, I’m trying to move on!” As the wheel turns on and on it finds it knows nothing other than rolling, and so it rolls on.
Earle’s predecessors know something about wheels: Lucinda Williams’ most famous album is titled Car Wheels on a Gravel Road; Jeff Tweedy sings, “I’m a wheel, I will turn on you”; Parsons sings about “twenty-thousand roads” and they all lead him back to the same place; and Williams, of course, drew the map for the future when he sang, “You’ll curse the day / You started rollin’ down that lost highway.” Although Williams uses “curse,” we might just assume on any other given day he could have written “worship.” If you’re missing the gospel lately, turn to Earle’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, Track 1, and listen through Track 10. Keep on movin’ and finding faith in the wheel. While we can’t count on Earle to stay up, we can count on his attempt to; and, in turn, we can count on ours.