It’s tempting to frame Justin Townes Earle within the darker designs that shadowed his life and career.
His troubled relationship with his father, Steve Earle, and the struggle with his inner demons may have overshadowed his efforts, but his artistic achievements are underscored by a lingering legacy.
Here is Holler's list of 15 of the best Justin Townes Earle songs:
A hint of optimism shines through as Justin celebrates the joys of domesticity and being near the ones he loves.
Upbeat and engaging, it offers a rare sense of celebration, and it’s all the more appealing as a result. For once, we hear him decidedly demonstrative while sharing some hopeful happenstance.
A painfully confessional tune aimed at his father while also seeking redemption. “We don't see eye to eye / And I'll be the first to admit I've never tried”.
One has to wonder if the elder Earle took the hint and made any effort to reconcile.
Hopeful and somewhat upbeat, ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ finds Earle doing his best to reconnect, but the obstacles still confront him.
The shimmer and sparkle elevate the effort, resulting in one of his most alluring efforts overall. The singer’s enthusiasm is barely contained, and the listener is naturally drawn along.
Decidedly autobiographical, ‘Yuma’ is a not so nuanced narrative about a lonely loser consumed with drugs, booze and his own disappointment and disillusionment.
The narrator has clearly given up on life and any hint of promise or persistence. Once again, it’s all but impossible to separate the singer from his song.
The title track of his third album, the song is surprisingly upbeat considering its fatalistic lyric: “Lord, I'm going uptown / To the Harlem River to drown / Dirty water gonna cover me over / And I'm not gonna make a sound”.
Considering the song suggests suicide, it’s remarkably infectious, the snappy rhythm belying its otherwise downcast designs.
With a lyric aimed directly at his dad, Earle offers an original take on the Elvis classic ‘Are You Lonely Tonight’ courtesy of a pensive plea that tugs at the heartstrings.
“Sometimes I wish that I could get away / Sometimes I wish that he'd just call”. Given its simple strum and melancholy melody, it reflects Earle’s unsettled emotions.
Even idealized love can’t last forever, as Earle proves on this lonely lament expressing his disappointment around a woman who turned her back on him and refused to return his affection.
A mournful melody underscores a decidedly sad scenario, adding yet another degree of disappointment to Earle’s fatalistic fascinations.
Supposedly inspired by Hank Williams and dedicated to Billie Holiday, ‘White Gardenias’ offers a portrait of a woman who remains just out of reach but well entrenched within Earle’s imagination.
It also offers a rare glimpse of optimism in a lullaby-like setting. The singer’s sense of admiration and appreciation for his muse is pure and palatable.
An insistent effort, it finds Earle intensifying his understated ambitions and pleading for understanding despite darker circumstances, but here again, he takes a most pessimistic perspective.
“I've been taken in pieces / I've been sold off cheap / I’ve been spread out all over the Southeast”.
Here again, Earle emphasizes a downcast demeanor that serves to underscores his intents.
The lyrics belie an otherwise affable melody: “Mama, I'm hurting, in the worst way / I got no money in my pocket, no place to stay / Never know what to say / Aw, but it doesn't matter, mama / If you always look the other way.”
It’s a plea for help that was ultimately ignored.
Another prophetic effort, one that practically pleads for help finding some sort of salvation, it is an obvious admission that he’s lost, misguided and in desperate need of clarity and compassion. It’s unclear who he believes can help him achieve his aims, but at least he realizes the need is there.
Here again, Earle paints a self-depreciating portrait of himself (“I've always been a fool / For a conversation and a couple of smokes”), but also manages to find some redemption with an idealized image of a woman he feels he’s destined to meet. It may be a futile attempt, but the optimism is well worth relishing.
Given its premise, one might expect more in the way of dire determination. Notably, it finds Earle engaging in some stoic blues, offering an otherwise unintended rebuttal to Dylan’s ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ in spirit as well as sound. Regardless, it still manages to underscore a somewhat menacing mantra.
A bit of a break from Earle’s darker designs, ‘Champagne Coralla’ is nevertheless an assertive effort, more celebratory than cerebral and far more expressive than one might expect.
This is, after all, a fluid example of full-out rocking revelry. It also places the focus on another individual, allowing for a welcome respite from his general solitary stance.
Given its apocalyptic title, one gets the idea that Justin was born to wallow in despair.
“See my night trouble started early / I was stealing, gettin' in fights / Smoking and drinking by age 13 / Skipping class and getting high.”
A notable example of Earle’s penchant for confession and contention, it foretells the tragedy that was to come.
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