Absent Fathers is Justin Townes Earl’s seventh album and second working with L.A. based Vagrant Records. This album comes only four months after the release of his sixth album, Single Mothers. In fact, the titles of both albums can be found in the lyrics of the song “Single Mothers,” off the album of the same name. The album names directly correlate with Justin’s own childhood, in which his father, singer-songwriter Steve Earle, abandoned the family when Justin was just two, leaving his mother to care for him. The scar that action left can be found in the faded lyrics of Justin’s songbook.
The first track on the Absent Fathers, “Farther from Me,” is an open letter to his father expressing disappointment in the selfish life he chose to live, and how even now he slips farther away from a son still wondering why he left in the first place. It’s a scathing indictment filled with anger and resentment and, as a listener, it’s easy to find yourself empathizing with the confused young boy at the heart of the song. Whatever answers he demands, it’s clear that Justin, as a grown man, isn’t interested in reconciliation. He flatly states in the lyrics that his father broke the heart of a young child in a way that would never heal and he won’t ever have the chance to break it again.
Justin sings his songs with a heavy voice which carries a sad wisdom beyond its years. To hear it seep out during a live performance is almost like watching a ventriloquist. You figure there must be some puppet master manipulating his thin tattooed frame. The unique blend of old-school county, blues and folk music perfectly complement his brooding tenor. It feels less like he’s performing songs and more like he’s bearing his soul and it’s a damn hard thing not to get drawn into.
Once past the opening track, the album deals primarily with the subject of romantic relationships which comes as no surprise given Justin’s recent nuptials. His wife appears standing next to him on the album cover, which reads like an homage to American Gothic, minus the pitchfork, and with the addition of one killer straw hat.
The theme of the album stays consistent, through its end, as we follow Justin’s struggle to find a solid rock to cling to amidst the rapids of this relentless river of life. The final track of the album, “Looking for a Place to Land,” is a beautiful tribute played out simply on the six strings of his guitar. In it he describes a weathered pilot running low on fuel and desperately looking for a place to land before he crashes violently into the earth below. The man feels like he’s been flying for far too long, through too much turbulence, and isn’t going to make it. In the end, he is guided down to safety and helped back to his feet by a loving savior. It’s a touching metaphor and, although, the song is less complex, musically, than the rest on the album, the emotion conveyed is, almost, greater than the whole.
Perhaps there is hope for that lonely cowboy wandering amidst the highways. Perhaps his story has a happy ending after all. But that doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is the feeling this album leaves behind.
It’s something to resonate in you, to inspire reflections on the turbulence in your own life, past and present. As such, it’s not the album to reach for if you need energy in the morning or are pumping yourself up for a cage fight. However, I would recommend it for relaxing weekends, road trips, or if your girlfriend just ran off with your brother and took your truck, dog and finest rifle with her. If the latter’s the case, I’m real sorry for you but this record and a cheap bottle of bourbon should work just fine for your old country blues.
Absent Fathers Track List:
1. Farther From Me
3. Least I Got The Blues
4. Call Ya Momma
5. Day and Night
6. Round the Bend
7. When the One You Love Loses Faith
8. Slow Monday
9. Someone Will Pay
10. Looking For A Place To Land