“Absent father / Oh, never offer even a dollar / He doesn’t seem to be bothered / By the fact that he’s forfeit his rights to his own,” sings Justin Townes Earle on “Single Mothers,” the title track of his fifth and latest full-length. Those are powerful words for the son of a famous man to write—especially when his father, legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earle, left Justin’s mom when he was two—and it’s definitely not the kind of sentiment that’s going to gain any fans in the men’s rights movement. Not that Earle would want to. But “Single Mothers” can’t be read as strict autobiography any more than the rest of the album can, and as with the best work in Earle’s catalog, it’s bravely intimate while shooting for a more universal resonance.
Much of that universality has to do with Single Mothers’ easy, cozy grace. It’s deeply informed by classic ’60s R&B—“Worried Bout The Weather” has a simmering, Otis Redding-meets Nashville vibe—even as it sticks to Earle’s classic-country wheelhouse. “My Baby Drives” has a hiccupping, honky-tonk twang on par with a young Dwight Yoakam; “Time Shows Fools” picks up a slight Elvis Costello-circa-Almost Blue accent. But Earle’s voice beams through like headlights in the fog, a beacon of smoky, husky forlornness in the midst of aching turmoil and bitter regrets. “How many times have you fallen in love? / Has your heart ever truly been full or just full enough?” he asks on “Burning Pictures,” and the fact that it’s the album’s most upbeat track doesn’t soften its sting.
Earle’s consistency is both his friend and his enemy on Single Mothers. In its quest for poignant empathy and delicate strokes of storytelling, it doesn’t vary much in tone. The album’s most gripping song winds up being its least energetic; on “It’s Cold In This House,” his careworn voice drifts through whispery jangle and a pall of lonesome pedal steel, cocooned in its own isolation. But he doesn’t muster much more energy on Single Mothers’ more rocking cuts, which renders the album less affecting than its subject matter would suggest. Earle has succeeded in carving out the root of his own musical legacy, mostly free of the shadow of his father’s fame. Single Mothers, though, still shoulders the gravity of that past with a little too much numbness.