I’m serious – don’t even begin to complain about the fact that Justin Townes Earle’s new Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now doesn’t sound exactly like 2010’s Harlem River Blues or whatever. You liked Harlem River Blues ? Cool – so did I. I’m betting Justin Townes Earle did, too.
But Nothing’s Gonna Change … is not Harlem River Blues Part II and that’s okay. Just as the Drive-By Truckers gave in to their inner soulsters with last year’s Go-Go Boots, Earle has let his muse take the wheel and let the thing roll all the way to Memphis, baby. The result is a cool album that stands on its own two peg-legged pants legs beneath a street light on Beale Street, smoking a Chesterfield and reflecting on love, loss, and life. Horns and organ and bits of Cropperistic guitar take the place of old-timey string band arrangements this time around: another chapter; another place; another side of Justin Townes Earle.
First, a quick look at the supporting cast: Bryan Owings’ cool-as-hell drums and the lovely upright bass of Bryn Davies are the real heart and soul of this album. Owings’ playing is masterfully understated; just enough to have a presence and give the tunes a pulse, be it a gently-brushed snare or the thump of a floor tom. And Davies is the album’s MVP: her bass aches (“Am I Lonely Tonight?”); it snaps and growls (“Baby’s Got A Bad Idea”); it sighs and shrugs (“Won’t Be The Last Time”). Together they build the ideal landscapes for each one of Earle’s vignettes to play out.
Adding to the album’s simple-yet-deep soul is Skylar Wilson’s keyboard work, be it classic B3 swell and roar (“Memphis In The Rain”) or acoustic piano (dig the Jerry Lee Lewis-style hammers and tinkles of “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea” or the solemn truth of his playing on “Unfortunately, Anna”). And Paul Niehaus is my guitar hero this week: never mind all the true-to-the-vibe cool fills and riffs he lays down throughout the album; forget about his steel guitar work on a couple of the slower tunes; give that man an award simply for his perfect solo on “Look The Other Way”. Niehaus introduces the break with a sweet little lick at the 1:10 mark, then fires off a series of gently-bent doublestops over the horns’ punches in the background. He’s back out of there with a clean escape lick and classy tip-of-the-hat chord by 1:28, but those 18 seconds are nothing but guitar sweetness.
Cory Younts and Amanda Shires provide vocal backing on a number of tunes: subtle wisps that Justin Townes Earle sometimes nestles into and other times turns his collar up against and walks away from. (And yes, Ms. Shires brought her sexy fiddle to the sessions, as well.) As for JTE himself, his vocals on Nothing’s Gonna Change often sound reminiscent of a young Springsteen – all slurry/croaky/I’m-diggin’-the-sleep-outta-my-eyes-and-pouring-my-heart-out-to-ya-darlin’ without ever sounding affected. It’s the natural sound made by self-soul excavating, coming clean about some of your own fears and fuck-ups.
And that’s the deal with this album: it feels like Earle is leaving himself wide-open – almost embarrassingly so. Maybe “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” is a fictional character questioning his relationship with his fictional father, but no matter: the emotion of the words is as real as the pain of the muted trumpet in the background. “Movin’ On” finds the road-weary singer torn between trying to get away from it all and the fact that he “just stand myself alone.” And when it comes to those fuck-ups mentioned earlier, “Won’t Be The Last Time” admits to them, but the chorus says it all – pointing out the difference between honesty and an apology.
One of the most powerful songs on the album – both lyrically and in terms of arrangement – is “Unfortunately, Anna”, in which the title character bares her soul from the back seat of the car that’s picked her up in the rain. Anna needs to know that “there’s something more to this life” and she’s “waitin’ for the world to change.” The cruel joke revealed to her in the song’s final moments – ”Unfortunately, Anna” – is “it’s you who needs to change.”
How much of this is exceptional songwriting and how much of this is viciously-honest self-analysis? Time will tell. In the meantime, lay back and enjoy Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now for its soul and don’t worry about where it’s headed.