Justin Townes Earle has spent a dozen years–beginning with his 2007 debut E.P. Yuma–working towards the cheeky, New Testament-referencing title he bestows upon himself on his new album. From the beginning, Earle has been a relentlessly principled artist, fixed in his old-fashioned ways of what it means to be a 21st century singer-songwriter.
The roots revival Earle helped usher in earlier this decade with albums like 2010’s Harlem River Blues has since largely passed him in favor of smoother-voiced traditionalists like Jason Isbell, and yet, on his latest, Earle remains more attached than ever to his own treasured lost causes: old-school folk storytelling, out-of-date pre-rock stylings, and the utter centrality of album making in the era of streaming.
The Saint of Lost Causes, finds him doubling down on his own stubbornness, and it makes for Earle’s most inspired effort since 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. Yet, its blend of mid-century country blues and gently melodic folk balladry, always cornerstones of Earle’s sound, feels less well-worn and more studiously refined this time around.
After focusing more closely personal ties and youthful recollections on his last several records, Earle sounds rejuvenated in the fresh reportorial role he assumes on songs that tackle environmental degradation (“Don’t Drink the Water”), Rust Belt collapse (“Flint City Shake It”), opioid devastation (“Appalachian Nightmare”), and gentrification (“Over Alameda”).
Still, Earle is, as always, most affecting when exploring the endless complications of familial ties, a topic that’s he’s wrestled with throughout his entire career. The LP’s centerpiece, tucked away towards its end, is “Ahi Esta Mi Nina,” a one-way (perhaps imagined) conversation between a trouble father and his only daughter. The song is a devastating portraiture of parental remorse and failed connection written from the perspective of a frightened new father. “You’re the only good I ever done with my life,” the narrator confesses, “And I never done right by you.”
Apart from a few genre exercises that, at this point, can feel phoned-in from a stylist as well-studied as Earle (see the honky-tonking “Pacific North Western Blues”), The Saint of Lost Causes lives up to its title, serving as a refreshing reminder of what the songwriter has always done best.