Aging is not very punk. Punk is the stuff of disaffected youth, and it's no secret that an underage Justin Townes Earle was a poster child for punkish delinquency.
"When Nirvana's first record came out in 1989, I guarantee I was the first kid in Nashville, Tenn., that owned a copy of Bleach," says Earle, sitting in a coffee shop a couple blocks from Music Row — he spends more time in Nashville than New York these days. "I was 7 years old when that record came out. I had it because of my dad [Steve Earle]. He wasn't around, but he would send me records, everything that was new.
"I came by my punk-rock thing very honestly," he continues. "And I loved the crowd that was around it, because I was one of those, you know, grew-up-with-my-mother kind of disenfranchised kids that found a little bit of support in this punk-rock scene for a short period. But it all ended with us in the alley behind Lucy's Record Shop huffing glue at 3 a.m."
Do the math and you realize that the Earle of today is 30 years old (he celebrated a birthday in January). It's not lost on him that he's crossed a threshold neither Kurt Cobain nor Hank Williams ever made it across.
"If you die when you're 27," says Earle, "they make tribute records and documentaries. If you die when you're 30, they don't give a shit. ... The whole idea of the rock 'n' roll death is nowhere near as cool once you're no longer in your 20s. I didn't freak out when I turned 30. I kind of welcomed it as a chance for me to actually say to people, 'I'm not gonna do that — I'm 30 years old.' "
Thirty is, indeed, a little old for glue huffing — not that Earle hasn't had his tussles with harder stuff from time to time. He also decided 30 is a little old for him to keep playing the cocky, carefree rambler character he so vividly depicted on his full-length debut, The Good Life. The four-album journey from that batch of songs to his latest, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, is no less a transition than Taylor Swift's from a teenage perspective into young adulthood.
Says Earle, "I think it's the difference between a 26-year-old that made The Good Life and a 30-year-old that is now representing the songs from this new record. Over the past five years that I've been recording, I've definitely learned a lot about myself. I used to think that my limits were very big, and I had all this room before I screwed up. But my limits are very close, because I screw up very quick these days."
You won't find Earle pondering mortality on his new album, but he does sound like he's carrying a weight on his shoulders — the weight of figuring out what growing older means for him, considering he's already lived enough for several lifetimes. During "Won't Be the Last Time" he confides, "When I was young, I was dumb and I was free / Now I'm gettin' old, and I feel this world closing in on me." Even "Baby's Got a Bad Idea" — the most revved-up number on there — catches him complaining that he's "much too old a man" for the games his girl is playing.
"After listening to this record," Earle says, "I realized that I was more conscious of my age and aging than I thought I was. But I think it'll still be a good thing to look back on. Because, I mean, God, what am I going to be saying when I turn 40?"
Which raises the question: How old does he feel now?
"I'm still a big kid in the fact that I like to watch cartoons in the morning," he says. "It drives my girlfriend crazy. She hates waking up to the sounds of cartoons in the house. I definitely sometimes feel like I've pushed it a little far in years past. I know 30-year-olds that are a little more spry than me. I know 35-year-olds that are a little more spry than me."
Maybe it's not such a coincidence, then, that Earle mostly takes it slow during the new songs. Memphis soul is his reference point here, but his version of soul keeps to the back-alley shadows, where gospel-style belting would be sorely out of place. His vocals sound barer and more bruised than they ever have.
"Last year, due to several things, I was having some kind of chest and throat problems right after I quit drinking," he says. "Because when I was drinking, I was just cutting loose and it didn't really matter. But I started to hurt myself. I switched to in-ear monitors on stage, and I think when I did that, I found a softer place in my chest to sing from, something that doesn't take as much power. I don't strain as hard when I do it. But I found that it gave me access to a bit more of a range than I had shown before in my singing. I got the mic really hot and just got really close to it and sang really soft, kinda like Chet Baker."
The album's quietest songs are among its most riveting, including the title track, "Unfortunately, Anna" and "Won't Be the Last Time."
Says Earle of the latter, "It was me acknowledging the fact that I really just don't know what's gonna happen day to day. I don't know how I'm going to feel. I mean, I had a five-year period where I did no drugs and drank no alcohol, and even quit caffeine and quit smoking cigarettes at one point during it. But then five years later I got tired of it, and I didn't want to do that anymore."
There's an element of risk to emotionally investing oneself in the music of a guy who makes peace with being a creature of habit instead of making habit-breaking promises. But Earle's also one of the most compelling singer-songwriters — and survivors — of his generation, and he's penning unflinching stuff, unclouded by romanticization, self-righteousness or self-pity.
"The songs are pretty dark," he says. "They have fairly dark content. But I try to be as gentle with it as I can. ... If I take a softer approach to [my] work, I take a softer approach to life."