Justin Townes Earle — Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. Out 3/28, Bloodshot Records.
When it comes to my favorite artists releasing new albums, I have two pre-release schools of anxiety: there’s the anxiety that this artist I love is going to make a super shitty album, and I am going to be sad, and then there’s the anxiety that this artist I love is going to make an album that’s so good that I can’t even talk about it. I have no idea why the latter causes me anxiety, but it does, lots of it, and Justin Townes Earle is one of those artists who always falls into that category. I never worry that JTE is going to make a crappy album, but after Harlem River Blues, I was a little worried that Nothing’s Gonna Change was going to be so good that all I was going to be able to say about it was something incoherent and possibly not even in English, that involved a lot of handwaving.
Handwaving doesn’t translate well on the internet, I’m just saying.
Luckily for me, Nothing’s Gonna Change is a) brilliant, but b) not so unspeakably brilliant that I can’t talk about it. Because what I can say is this: Justin Townes Earle made me a Nashville soul record. This record is full of his signature songwriting, the sort of melancholy lyrics over hand claps and cheerful melodies that make you think that drowning yourself in the Harlem River is a great idea (happiest song about suicide ever written, that title track), the songs that are rife with his feelings about his relationship with his dad and all the girls in his wake, but it is also full of horn sections and more hand claps, delightfully, than one album usually has but always should have.
Straight up, album opener “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” (one of my early favorite songs of 2012) tells you that Justin is pushing his boundaries in arranging and musicianship; the guitars on this shimmer with steel, and the muted horns and melancholy female backing vocals are an extension of the sound we got to hear on “Rogers Park” from HRB, pushed further. It’s not Muscle Shoals soul, all wail and bass, or Detroit soul, all groove and rattle, but it’s that edge of Nashville soul, where the music sounds like the light of the golden hour; JTE follows up the brokenhearted “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” with the uptempo shimmer guitar lick intro on “Look the Other Way”, punched with horns and twang.
JTE will never sound like he’s singing anything other than country, and the title track proves that; the first two lines are a plaint and a cry, and the whole song carries that late-night-in-a-dive-bar-after-a-break-up feel, but there’s no way you can call “Nothing’s Gonna Change” a pure country song. The music is too out of JTE’s previous comfort zone, and that’s one of the best thing about this album — songs that would have been straight ahead country rockers before this, like ragtime piano swinger “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea” that follows “Nothing’s Gonna Change”, take a totally different tack and work just as well as if they’d been recorded on The Good Life with a mandolin break. (JTE’s little growl on that one makes me feel a little funny, in a good way, too. Unf.)
As when Lucero made 1372 Overton Park, seamlessly fusing their cowpunk guitars with the Memphis horns, JTE has done the same thing. The first time I listened to this record, driving from Chapel Hill to Charlotte to hear Lydia Loveless (almost two months ago, thanks to Asha at Sacks Co.; I’ve spent a lot of time with Nothing’s Gonna Change, you guys), I knew it sounded different as soon as I put it on, but it honest-to-God took me until the middle of the record, “Maria”, to identify that change as the horns, the Hammond organ, the steel blues guitar. It sounded like Justin, but it didn’t sound like Justin. It was a great record, but it wasn’t what I expected.
Every place I thought I’d get banjo, I got a muted wailing trumpet; every place I thought I’d get Justin’s stellar finger-picking, I got a slide and some steel and a bottle neck on an electric guitar. This record amazed me at every turn, and that, not his names, is why Justin Townes Earle is so good, so young: he has an endless capacity to surprise with his songwriting, his ear for a sound, his direction with his records. I love the way he writes about New York in “Down on the Lower East Side” and puts it over a jazz sound; I love the brushed drums and mournful fiddle and the stripped down soul sound of “Won’t Be the Last Time”.
It took me a long time to come to Harlem River Blues; half a year at least. It’s still an album that I’m discovering, in some ways, finding new songs I love even now two years later. I thought it was going to take me that long, not in listening hours but in days and months, to come to Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, but it hasn’t. A lot of listens, yes, but not a lot of time. It’s an easy album to love, even if it’s not what you thought it would be. It’s an easy album to love because even this early in the year, it’s one of the best records that’s been made for 2012.