When your Dad's Steve Earle and your namesake is Townes Van Zandt, you probably aren't destined to be a shoemaker. A native of Music City, Justin Townes Earle ate well from the horn of plenty that is the Nashville scene. He kicked around in some bands, but also generally raised a lot of hell. Around 2007, he started releasing albums regularly - "Saint of Lost Causes" is his eighth release and the first since 2017's critically well-received "Kids In the Street." Earle took the production "home" with this record, selecting Nashville as the town, and his old producer/A&R guy Adam Bednarik.
While the recording is local, the concerns are national. It covers tales of American blues, as filtered through an array of folk/indie stylings. The title track opener has a smarmy lounge singer vibe, but the character is nobody you want to meet in a dark alley. He still longs for understanding and takes you through how his low life fits neatly into the ways of the world. Earle never met anybody down and out he didn't have sympathy for; but woe to the fat cats and robber barons that keep poor folks poor. Tracks like "Don't Drink the Water" and "Flint City Shake" (a kind of rockabilly version of Michael Moore's film "Roger and Me") hang high those corporate bosses.
To be clear, this really isn't cocktail party music to be shared with friends. ongs like "Appalachian Nightmare" - about the last desperate moments of a reluctant junkie criminal - are made for your reflection as much as listening pleasure. While many of the spartan lyrics drive the narrative, the handful that stop to try to make a wider point ("Right now I know it makes no difference / That I never meant to kill that man") can be haunting. It never quite gels to the heights of Springsteen's "Nebraska," but does equal other Boss outings like "Devils and Dust." Earle maybe enjoys his right to meander a little too much. "Say Baby" is so lyrically simple, it sounds improvised. He's best when he applies the time and polish. The plum tune of the set is "Mornings in Memphis" with rich pedal steel and a calypso rhythm. It sweetly evokes that quiet sunrise moment after a bender as proof that beauty still thrives in the world.