Justin Townes Earle’s new song is lyrically profound, musically bleak, and emotionally stirring without walloping your gut with the sort of blue-black bruise that doesn’t fade.
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Listen: “The Saint of Lost Causes” – Justin Townes Earle
With Steve Earle as a father and a middle name fashioned after Townes Van Zandt, how could Justin Townes Earle be anything other than a country singer? The expectations for banjos and hoedowns every time he enters the studio must be overwhelming. Earle, though, isn’t one to be hemmed in by what his audience is expecting: He’s paved a career that’s walked the tough line between West Coast hipster and Tennessee folk singer that most people didn’t even know existed. This, at best, leads to beautiful moments of experimentation—and at worst, moments that jar the ear. Here, “The Saint of Lost Causes” is a rich illustration of the former.
It’s that beautiful Earle Jr. special blend of jazz drumming, folk strumming, and a bit of blues flair that creates the dark backdrop for this album opener. It’s eerie and haunting and dripping with regret. The cold, slow delivery makes the detachment of Earle’s lyrics even more sinister. And yet, miraculously, it’s also catchy and at least a little bit relatable. JTE opens his new record—May’s The Saint of Lost Causes—with a deep dive into his psyche.
Honestly, we’re the better for it.
I’m a bad dream
I’m not a nightmare, I’m too goody for that
Let’s just say I’m the last thing you wanna see coming
I’m the reason they say watch your back
More spoken than sung—and way more detached than we’re used to in an Earle song—you can hear him channeling some long, distant pain. His voice is here, but his mind is off with some faraway ghosts. Like the hopes of our troubled hero, this brooding sound sits patiently in its weeping rhythm for most of the song.
It’s achingly beautiful and serves to put the listener on edge—just as much as Earle clearly is. Halfway through, you find yourself just as nervous and anxious as he is, without any reason to be. The lyrics offer no reprieve.
Nah, there’s nothing can be done
It’s just the way it goes
First you get bad, then you get mean
Then there’s nothing left but to grow cold
And pray to the Saint of Lost Causes
What makes this song so appealing, however, isn’t the pain but the relatability of it all. At one point in our lives, most of us have prayed, wished on a star, hoped on a whim, or crossed our fingers till they turned blue, knowing deep down it was all for naught. Life is largely a result of our own choices and random chance, with our encounters with “wolves and sheep” dictated by these two factors. Patrons to the “Saint of Lost Causes” usually end up the same way: as pennies in a shopping mall fountain.
Now it’s a cruel world
But it ain’t hard to understand
You got your sheep, got your shepherds
Got your wolves amongst men
It can be hard to tell
You might find a wolf in shepherd’s clothes
And now and then you’re gonna find sheep
In amongst all those troubled souls
This relatable notion only drives home the unease of the track. While the rest of the album is a little on the cheerier side, this is the track that’ll stick with you. The sense that whatever happened to him can happen to anyone—and the lingering sense that the pain will never leave you—is guaranteed to have you thinking twice about your next few decisions.
Still take nothing for granted
Might live on the best block in Beverly Hills
Be sure you lock up tight at night
‘Cause you know poor folks ain’t got nothing to steal
Just pray to the Saint of Lost Causes
JTE has created a song that is lyrically profound, musically bleak, and emotionally stirring without walloping your gut with the sort of blue-black bruise that doesn’t fade. “The Saint of Lost Causes” is about reaching the end of the road and about being haunted by pasts, but it can also be a reminder to not leave your life up to empty words offered to the universe. It’s a new look for the usually jaunty country-boy-hipster, but it’s hard to disagree that life-hardened-grifter doesn’t suit him.
“The Saint of Lost Causes” – Justin Townes Earle
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? © Joshua Black Wilkins