Justin Townes Earle’s Absent Fathers is in many ways the mirror image of last year’s Single Mothers. Virtually all of the same elements are here — abandonment, despair, resilience, and recovery — but the perspective has shifted. Take the two album covers: Both show a bespectacled man in a wide-brimmed hat staring with a challenging gaze directly into the camera. Earle’s swooping signature spreads across each image in white, offering a penumbra for the block lettering of the respective album titles. But while Single Mothers presents a prepubescent boy set against a colorful mosaic, Absent Fathers shows the 33-year-old Earle backed by darkness.
Absent Fathers, Earle’s sixth album, is a distinct and deeply personal statement about the search for a rock, an anchor, anything to keep from floating into the ether when it feels like there’s nothing left to hold on to. If you hadn’t already guessed, the title references Earle’s own father, singer-songwriter Steve Earle. Between getting thrown in jail for weapons possession and a heroin addiction that nearly claimed his life, Steve wasn’t much of a dad. He walked out on Justin’s mother when the boy was just a toddler, and from then on, his involvement in Justin’s life was sporadic at best.
Throughout the album, JTE struggles to cope with the anguish of abandonment. Framed by a wistful, teardrop acoustic guitar and sluggish snare drum, “Farther from Me” is an indictment of his wayward father. JTE wastes no time landing a stinging blow, sounding weary and worn as he delivers the album’s opening lyrics: “Wish I could say I didn’t know you.” Nothing can heal the harm that’s been done. JTE can only try to stop the hemorrhage: “You won’t break my heart again/ You broke it once, I was too young and it didn’t mend.” Shifting his focus to an ex-girlfriend on “Why”, JTE tries in vain to pinpoint where the relationship went sour. Backed by the piercing pedal steel of Paul Niehaus (Calexico, Lambchop), he asks a series of questions that go from searching to scratching: “When did your heart change?/ When did you grow so cold and hard, babe?”
Though JTE spends plenty of time playing the role of victim here, he occasionally flips the script. By also presenting himself as the source of pain rather than its recipient, he shows that hurt begets hurt, and those who are abandoned today become the heartbreakers of tomorrow. JTE sends a soon-to-be-ex lover crying to mommy on “Call Ya Momma”. With lyrics that starkly contrast the song’s jaunty tempo, he grapples with the guilt of inflicting the same kind of pain he’s spent his life trying to mitigate. “Shame, shame, I wanted to cry in shame,” he rasps.
But Absent Fathers isn’t just about shame and suffering; resilience and recovery are major themes as well. After 13 trips to rehab, JTE has been sober since 2011, and he married in 2013. Having achieved some much-needed contentment and tranquility, Absent Fathers, like Single Mothers, finds him reformed, sorting through scabs and scar tissue with poignant lyrics and a plaintive pedal steel. The sparse “Day and Night” moves from darkness to light, doubling as an homage to his wife, Jenn Marie, a woman JTE credits with salvaging his sanity and brightening his future. She’s his stabilizing force, his raison d’être, and when he sings, “I know she’s gonna help carry me,” his words are deeply felt.
Closing cut “Looking for a Place to Land” provides a perfect contrast to the venom and resentment on “Farther from Me”. Accompanied by only an acoustic guitar, JTE sounds raw and exposed as he yearns for solid ground. Partially abandoned by his father at the age of two, a user of “hard drugs” at 12, and nearly broken by a relapse in 2010, JTE hasn’t had it easy. “I think that the changes that we need come,” he explained in a recent interview, “and that’s about as philosophical as I can get.”
In the final minute of Absent Fathers, just as the singer’s voice is fading and we get the sense that he might not make it after all, his quest for companionship bears fruit: “You held me up ‘til I could stand/ Now I never fly alone, I’ve got a place to land.” Exhaustion, relief, and euphoria all mix together in those last two lines. Highlighting JTE’s ability to channel both heartache and happiness through his unguarded lyrics and crisp guitar, Absent Fathers feels authentic and true — exactly how country music should. As Earle makes clear, our lifelong search for companionship, however rocky and rambling it may be, is always worth the effort.
Essential Tracks: “Farther from Me”, “Day and Night”, and “Looking for a Place to Land”