Justin Townes Earle: “Harlem River Blues”
Musical trends tend to be cyclical, and, in 2010, rockabily seems to be making something of a resurgence– at least in country-roots circles– a mere sixty years after its original heyday. My favorite example, until now, was John Mellencamp’s pitch-perfect Sun Studios strut, as heard on his No Better Than This recording; now, we have a contender in Justin Townes Earle, as well. Three songs into his new Harlem River Blues and he’s doing his best Elvis howl over a slapped double bass and under a cloud of low-hanging reverb that would have made Sam Phillips positively giddy.
Anyone with the good taste to record rockabily songs on this level is okay in my book, and the fact that Earle nails the sound so well is enough to place him in the front ranks of talented young country/blues musicians. The thing about Earle, though, is that his roots go deep– and what else would you expect from a guy whose middle name is Townes? There isn’t any artifice on this album, no arbitrary conceits; the message is in the medium, as these songs, so steeped in country and folk and blues and rock history, are all wonderfully rugged hymns to scraping by in bankrupt times– to borrow a phrase from Loudon Wainwright, they’re ten songs for a new depression. They’re workin’ songs, travelin’ songs, hard-lovin’ songs, payin’ the bills songs. They’re songs for the truckstop, the honky tonk, the long haul.
The thread of history that runs through the album provides a degree of comfort. For as long as there’s been country music there have been songs like these, and the men who have always sung them– and to be sure, these are decidedly masculine songs– have, one senses, always benefited from doing so. I’m not sure that the themes here– of being in one place for too long (“One More Night in Brooklyn”), of working a shit job just to pay the bills (“Workin’ for the MTA”), and, on top of all that, of having to deal with a broken heart while maintaining your stoic, manly veneer (“Learning to Cry”)– are ones that only men can understand; that’s just the perspective from which Earle sings them. He’s got an outlaw cowboy’s sensibility– he’s tough and rugged on the outside, but he’s kind of a softy underneath it all.
As with the singer, so with the songs: There is, on every count, more to them than first meets the eye. It would almost be easy to peg Earle as a world-class country/roots impressionist– a revivalist who conjures ghosts of Americana past with effortless ease– but to do so would be to neglect the central truth of these songs as authentic, dirt-under-the-fingernails reflections of what American country and blues music mean, in a present tense, in today’s crises of manhood and finance. It would be to deny that, for all the spirits rattling around through these recordings– not just of Elvis and Carl Perkins but of Hank Williams in the grizzled tearjerker “Learning to Cry,” of Woody and Bob in the folksy rambling of “Wanderin,'” of rock and roll that predates the Beatles in “Slippin’ and Slidin'”– this recording never feels like it belongs to anyone other than Earle. He owns these songs, these sentiments, and these spirits that enliven them, and he conjures them at his will, to meet his purposes. Worth noting: Closing number “Rogers Park” is a rock ballad that one can easily imagine Ryan Adams recording; here, though, it’s given weight by the history that precedes and informs it. The difference is all the difference.
As a writer, Earle continues to excel. His mastery of American iconography is superb– aided by horns and a rock and roll backbeat, he pines for the love of a “Christchurch Woman” seemingly without irony; meanwhile, in the title song, he escapes life’s desperation into the merciful current of the sea– though whether he’s escaping into suicide or the second birth of baptism is never entirely clear. Either way, the conceit works, probably because of its ambiguity– particularly when the song picks up steam and turns into a joyful gospel jubilee. Earle’s true gift lies in his simplicity: “Workin’ for the MTA” is a work song that skips sentiment in favor of specificity, and in so doing communicates truth universally.
The same could be said of the album on the whole. These songs speak plainly, candidly, about the experiences of being a worker, a lover, an American; the vocabulary is that of history, of tradition, and of personal vision. The ten songs here are songs of and for the times of their creation; what’s more, they’re proof positive that Earle’s time has come. His understanding of American roots music is broader and deeper than anyone involved in the so-called alternative country scene, and, in composition, production, and performance, Harlem River Blues stands alongside the finest American roots music being made.