You could simply review Justin Townes Earle’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now by calling it a deftly crafted and painstakingly honest collection of songs written and performed by a man exceeding grandiose expectations damned upon him the moment his birth certificate was signed, but it’s hard to not dive into the question of how does this album fit into the larger legend and lore that has become Justin Townes Earle’s life?
In case you’re not familiar with Justin’s legendary lineage, as the son of [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Steve Earle[/lastfm], he was born when a lightening bolt struck John Henry’s hammer and he crawled out of his father’s head, holding[lastfm link_type="artist_info"] Townes Van Zandt[/lastfm]‘s guitar, while an angelic chorus sang a whiskey-soaked, foot stomping “Hallelujah” with cigarettes hanging from their bottom lips. Then he did a bunch of drugs (like a whole lot), cleaned up, and released a bunch of great albums. More or less.
[pullquote quote="Continuing with his trajectory set by Harlem River Blues, thematically and musically, Justin has stepped away from many of the standard folk archetypes (neckerchief not withstanding)"]Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now can easily serve as a fantastic stand alone piece of work that somebody who’s never listened to JTE could pickup and fall in love with, but also, for long time fans of Justin’s work, the album serves as a notable chapter in his growth and evolution as an artist and performer. Lyrically, this may be Justin’s most personal and honest work yet, and that can be both refreshing and scary at the same time.
Continuing with his trajectory set by Harlem River Blues, thematically and musically, Justin has stepped away from many of the standard folk archetypes (neckerchief not withstanding), and thus tells his story through less of a filter or literary device than on the earlier albums that established him as a standout artist in his own right.
Here, complex emotions and stories are handled with such breathtaking simplicity and understated arrangements that some of the brilliance could be missed on a first listen or with a highly compressed digital file. Sparsely placed single notes speak volumes and fill an orchestral amount of space. The production truly is an exercise in minimalist swagger. Subtle, soulful horns and undertones of rich, velvet smooth organ riffs mingle effortlessly with strings, dancing piano keys, and simple hand claps, yet the entire album maintains an extremely open and spread out sonic landscape with no clutter. It really is almost showing off.
A lone lyric or two of background vocals by the incomparable [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Amanda Shires[/lastfm] changes the entire mood of “Lower Eastside” with an almost impossible female grace that lifts the track out of a depressed Alphabetville gutter where Justin’s heart has slipped into hiding and gives the song an almost wistful romance. It’s near concerning how Justin can make a song this dark and pained sound so smooth, but that’s the precise element that makes this album such a work of beauty.
On “Unfortunately Anna” the alternating wails of the pedal steel and sawing of bass notes on the cello build such a rich emotional and haunting texture for the pounding, piano-driven crescendo that you’ll hit repeat on the song three times to turn that crescendo into a slow building hook.
Justin vocally attacks “Baby Got a Bad Idea” with such a ferocity, that you actually want to pull the girl in the song aside and tell her, “Look, hey, um, I know it’s none of my business, but from what I understand, you have a bad idea. Like, a really bad idea. And Justin’s pretty pissed about it, so maybe you ought to just kind of cool it and lay low for a while, for everybody’s sake. He’s going off about listening to you breath when you sleep, and, I don’t know—it just doesn’t seem right. So let’s cool it with the bad idea, right?”
The entire album was recorded live to tape with no overdubs, which makes the commitment to and consummation of the production and arrangements even more impressive.
And of course, for the devoted fans of Justin Townes Earle, it’s hard to ignore the constantly developing story of his life. To call it an Americana soap opera would inappropriately cheapen the artistry surrounding it all, so let’s liken it to a serial novel. In this chapter, we do get some resolution, or at least some explanation and clarity of some long running story lines.
On Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, Earle sings and writes with such a filterless and frank honesty, that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation with his mother or his sponsor or hearing him explain it all to himself while conversing with a cracked mirror in a broke down hotel room.
It’s no secret that over the past year of two Justin has, well, let’s just say the little Justin dressed as a devil sitting on his left shoulder has presented a more convincing case than the little Justin dressed as an angel on his right shoulder. It’s hard to say exactly what happened, but it’s pretty clear the man hit a rough patch and stayed there for a while.
So, yeah, the album is rife with self-admitted “daddy issues,” references to struggles with addiction and all the demons that fuel Justin’s passion, but it’s the sincerity and clarity with which he has handled these struggles that make this such a compelling collection of songs.
Whether he’s written these songs for us to help better understand his situation, for him to better understand it himself, or just simply because these are the songs coming from inside him, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now conveys an unapologetic and candid portrait of Justin’s life, the way he feels it, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment for any artist.