It’s no secret Justin Townes Earle would rather be in New York. When he moved to the city in 2011, he told Interview: “New York has always had a love for Southern artists. There’s no place else that makes me feel like the city does.” His last two albums were centered on New York, but he’s moved back home to Nashville and Single Mothers, his fifth LP, returns to wanderlust. Earle’s protagonists would rather be anywhere but here.
Earle has always been a proponent of big-tent Americana: He’ll throw a blues riff into an Otis Redding bass line into a song about trucks, and they’ll all flow together because Earle’s voice has a knowing friendliness that can tie together the most disparate historical moments. Opening track “Worried Bout the Weather,” about a shaky relationship, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sam & Dave album with its slow, swaying bass and pleading vocals. “Picture in a Drawer,” the album’s best and longest song, deals with addiction in a way that anyone who’s suffered from depression could relate to: “I’m not drowning/ I’m just seeing how long I can stay down.” Earle has always been a fan of “pretty” songs, and the woebegone guitar on “Picture” has an irresistibly sad charm.
The album falters when Earle leans toward biographical checklists — “I got married” (“My Baby Drives”), “My famous name wears on me” (“Wanna Be a Stranger”). There’s little of the risk-taking desire to make Americana sound more like America — no gospel choirs to be found here. But when it does show up on “White Gardenias,” a song about Billie Holliday’s relationship with Baltimore, it’s obvious that Earle has ambitions and big ears like very few other country musicians.