Maturing gracefully with Justin Townes Earle

Kids In The StreetHow do musicians mature with dignity? It's not as easy a question as it appears. On the first album, it's straightforward. It's a culmination of years, even decades of honing and dreams. As time goes on though, the question arises: how do you grow old gracefully and reflect that in your art? There are various approaches you can take.

You can make an effort to keep up with new musical trends and incorporate them into your music, making sure that you stay fresh and challenge yourself. The sadly missed David Bowie was a great example of this. It's true he had some misfires (the drum and bass phase was ill advised in my view, although Tin Machine were unfairly maligned). But he was always worth paying attention to.

You can bring in a new producer or work with a new artist in a hope of bringing something new to the table. When this works, you end up with Johnny Cash's Rick Rubin-produced American IV: The Man Comes Around. When it doesn't, you end up with the infamous Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration Lulu.

You can go for brutal honesty, as illustrated by The Streets. Mike Skinner followed the everyday kitchen-sink drama of the first two albums with The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living and its stories of trying to have sex with pop stars. It was refreshingly upfront in its departure from the street poetry template. And it divided opinion accordingly, with some people seemingly preferring their pop stars just slightly less truthful.

Or you could just ignore the fact you're growing older. The Bloodhound Gang still do that song about the Discovery Channel in their live shows. Jimmy Pop is 44.

How does this all tie into the new Justin Townes Earle album Kids in the Street? Well, this is Earle's tenth album. And it comes from a different place than his previous work. Earle has given up alcohol, got married, and is eagerly awaiting his first child. And Kids in the Street reflects this new-found maturity. Earle isn't running away from these life changes, he's embracing them. It's possibly his most positive album yet, although it still comes with a soulful heart. It's also more outward looking than his previous work, with the lyrics looking at subjects like gentrification and life in the inner cities.

It's an adult album, written by an adult for an adult audience. If that's its purpose, it does what it sets out to very well. The thirteen songs are carefully crafted, and Earle is unafraid to show his intelligence in the lyrical content. The arrangements are extremely strong, allowing him to show off the expertise he brings to songwriting.

But there's something of a cost to this. While Kids in the Street is a very pleasant album, it isn't particularly dynamic or exciting. The Motown grooves and obvious blues influence do just what you expect them to. There's not a lot to be surprised by here, just an album that knows what it is and is comfortable with that, which isn't all bad; the comfortableness of the work also leads to it being comforting to listen to.

It is possibly churlish to describe this as dinner party music, but not entirely inaccurate. There's nothing at all here to object to, but nothing to really get your blood pumping either. Earle's stories are worth telling, and so it makes sense he didn't want to take risks with how he put them across. But there's something safe about Kids in the Street, when a small amount of danger might have suited the subject matter of some songs better.

Justin Townes Earle has grown up, and he's done so gracefully. But the approach he's taken to this maturity seems to have smoothed away any edge. It's better than refusing to address his changing life, but it also leads to an album that forgets to embrace youthful rebellion entirely.

Release: 26th May 2017, New West Records


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.