Mar
27

Review – Justin Townes Earle “Nothing’s Gonna Change…”

March 27, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  44 Comments

This might be the hardest album review I’ve ever sat down to write. Normally I would not compose, and certainly not publish a review until I felt I had a firm determination on a project, but when it comes to Justin Townes Earle‘s Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, I have a sense that coming to that determination may take a time period longer than its garrulous title, maybe not until I see the material live, or maybe not until his next album is put out and it can be viewed in a greater context. It may be years from now.

And to further complicate the situation is my own confounding and bi-polar perspective on the man and his music. His last album Harlem River Blues had me fighting against the grain of positivity, calling out his sobriety as the culprit for gathering together a selection of songs sans his signature soul; a theory that was validated in part three weeks later when Earle ended a gig being detained by Indianapolis’s finest in a scenario that is serenaded on this album’s final track. And then last year I named him my Artist of the Year, based mostly on a live performance technically from the year before, and a new found sobriety that according to Justin included some serious relapses.

For all intents and purposes, Justin Townes Earle has “made it” in as much as any musician can in the modern era of music, and this usually endows the artist with the latitude to do just about whatever they want sonically, and JTE decided to give a “Memphis feel” (his words) to his newest endeavor. I hear Memphis here, but I also hear just as much early Motown. When you think “Memphis”, don’t think Sun Studios, Cash and Elvis so much as a bluesy, black soul vibe brought forth by horn sections and such.

Don’t call this a concept album, but except for maybe the final two songs, the “Memphis” production approach is very steadfast throughout. Some of the songs it compliments quite well. Some it seems to get in the way of. Some of the songs seem to be built solely to convey the Memphis soul, like “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea” and “Memphis In The Rain”.

There is not a bad song on this album. We see JTE return to the honest, heavy-hearted songwriting that has become his signature. Though this album is hard to warm up to. JTE’s voice may come across as unusual at first, maybe even weak, and the production may seem out-of-place or even droning because it is such an unusual approach for him, or any artist originating out of the Americana world. But when you give it time, it all starts to work. I think time will be a great ally of this album, just as much as the short-term may be a hindrance.

“Maria” is the first of the stellar songs of the album, and where the Memphis approach and Earle’s songwriting create a gorgeous confluence of style and soul and storytelling. The way the void of the lyric-less chorus is filled by a progression of tasteful guitar, then horns, then keys, and the way the song ends so abruptly and unresolved, with the name of a woman like salt on Earle’s lips gives the song a flawless construct and unobstructed bore straight to the listener’s heart.

Two songs seem to bench the Memphis vibe in lieu of just fiercely giving the song whatever it calls for, which turns out to be a pretty bare bones approach to let Earle’s mastery of lyric breathe in space. The sad, blinding self-awareness of “It Won’t Be The Last Time”, and the sad awareness of another in “Unfortunately, Anna” make whatever sounds audible to the human ear offered up to compliment the stories nearly superfluous. “It Won’t Be The Last Time” is the last song on the album, but the first one Justin wrote for it, and the first after his rehab stint. An audible hiss on the recording and the presence of steel guitar also helps delineate “It Won’t Be The Last Time” from the other songs in production and mood.

The “Memphis” production approach works, and works well at times, but I wonder what the need is to marry any song to any era or place, instead of letting a song choose a time and place itself? I’ve never though of Justin Townes Earle as an entertainer. He’s a songwriter, and then maybe a performer after that, and attempting to pull off songs like “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea” and “Look The Other Way” seemed to stretch his skill set, though “Look The Other Way” you can look past to see his signature songwriting style still there. Slow soul is JTE’s wheelhouse. Sometimes you need to change the pace to keep an album spicy, but you never need to stray too far from your strengths.

And again, I can’t stress enough that this album’s best days, or years may be in the future. Like the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street, or The Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique, Nothing’s Gonna Change‘s genius might take time to reveal itself. What I do feel confident in saying is that this is the album Justin Townes Earle wanted to make, and that it’s good. And let’s not forget to give him credit for being bold with this approach and release. He could have made just another album. Instead, he made this one. Maybe a little rushed, but it’s true to itself, and I stand steadfast behind my theory that Justin Townes Earle’s best work is done sober, like this album was.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up. For now.

****UPDATE****UPDATE****UPDATE****UPDATE****

After giving it much consideration and seeing Justin Townes Earle perform this material live, I have decided to change the grade on this review as I gave myself the option of doing up above. Though I still have some concerns that the “Memphis” approach hindered some songs, the strength of Nothing’s Gonna Change‘s other tracks, some of which I consider some of the best of the year so far, merit this album being considered in the top tier.

Two guns up!

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Preview & Purchase Tracks from Nothing’s Gonna Change…

44 Comments to “Review – Justin Townes Earle “Nothing’s Gonna Change…””

  • When I saw him play “It Won’t Be The Last Time” live back in 2010, I knew it would be a special song then, and it’s one of my favorites on this album. I don’t think there is a bad song on the album and I love this new style. I’m very curious as to how this material translates into his live show, since it’s stripped down and this is so much different from his previous records. I can’t wait to see what his next record sounds like.

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  • You said it. This is not an album that can be digested in days or even weeks. I think a lot of the reviewers are going to wish they’d waited a while before writing a review. I applaud you for recognizing this up-front.

    If new listeners pick up this album first out of JTE’s collection, they will likely not respect it and think it mediocre at best, as his other albums are much more approachable. There is no doubt that this is the album he wanted to put out.

    The fragility and emotion in his voice and the clarity and imagery of his lyrics are stunning. The work of the musicians on the album is outstanding – love the horns and double bass throughout. Amanda Shires’ fiddle work on “It Won’t Be the Last Time” in combination with that double bass is haunting.

    So much self-awareness in this album – very personal – emotions almost unbearable at times. The music conveys a range of emotions (and lack thereof), his soul-searching, his drive to not give up, his brokenness. “Look the Other Way” rips my heart out…

    He really poured himself into this album, and it shows. It is a much weightier album than the 31 minutes would imply.

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    • These are some great observations, some of which I’d made myself. Something you point out that I forgot to is that this album is very short. Not saying that’s a bad thing, but something significant to take away from it.

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      • Triggerman, I’m not sure the listener could handle a much longer album. The emotions can become overwhelming (if you sit and really listen; really, really listen).

        When you say, “Some of the songs seem to be built solely to convey the Memphis soul, like “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea” and “Memphis In The Rain”.”, I agree with you. They are a jarring change from the songs that immediately precede them.

        But I will argue that the preceding songs “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now” and “Won’t Be the Last Time” respectively are both so raw and emotional, the listener needs a change of tempo. Almost like the man’s life itself – ups and downs everywhere you look. In fact, the whole album flows that way, and is cyclical (starts and ends with his father).

        This album manifests his humanity.

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        • I’m all for shorter albums in any context these days. As I said in a comment below, there’s just too much music, and so quality should always be measured over quantity. I think the album strikes a great balance, despite maybe one or two weak moments. It may be short, but I can’t hear it being any longer. Let the content decide the length, and I agree with you that it does.

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      • JTE’s albums usually are quite short..

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  • for my money he isn’t very country which is ok. justin sounds like a throwback to an earlier musical time, also ok. i hear the pain and angst. good stuff and something i would buy. ‘exile’ is my favorite stones LP. always has been. there is something to this man and maybe one day ‘nothing’s gonna change’ will be considered his finest.

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  • It will be the end of the week before I can get this one but listening to the previews I hear something different. One of the first review I read about JTE said he sounded more like Townes Than Earle. I think that has changed.

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  • Just out of curiosity, would you be willing to do a follow up in a week or two, or however long it takes for it to sink in?

    I agree with a lot of your assessments, and this is an album that will take a lot out of you over a short period of time. I don’t mind the length (HRB was really short too). I’m actually in favor of an artist being pithy when it’s best suited. When I got through the first listening, I thought to myself “Jesus Christ, I just got a glimpse into a hell of a year.”

    I remember seeing him in Roanoke last year. My date and I got there about an hour and a half early so we could grab dinner beforehand. As we arrived, we saw Justin and his band unpacking his tour van. I mention this because I constantly think of that damn van during “Am I That Lonely Tonight?”

    You can literally see him driving, hearing his dad on the radio, and he begins to reflect on how terrible he feels. Second verse, he turns the radio down (so as to avoid hearing another song), and he’s clearly thinking about his dad when he says “I thought I’d be a better man.”, and also admitting to himself that he’s not. (I am my father’s son).

    The one thing you will not find on this album is a catharsis. And perhaps that’s your initial hangup with it. There is no happy ending, but isn’t that often the story of life? It’s certainly a constant theme throughout the album, coupled with the idea of abandonment, which is no better summarized in “Maria”. “I guess mama wasn’t lying about the dangers that could be inside one’s heart. We’re better off if we all remain strangers stumbling through the dark.” I absolutely love the hat tip to the Jayhawks in that line.

    Again, I’d love a revisit from you once the album marinates a bit more, and would love to chat more about it if interested.

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    • I certainly plan to revisit this album, as I think everyone else should over time, but I don’t think a week or two would be nearly sufficient. I have been listening to the album for probably a month now, so this is not a knee jerk review, and I have a sense you’re taking away from it that I had a more negative reaction than I did. I agree certainly that shorter albums could be better than long ones, and this fits better into my theory that there’s too much music.

      And as far as me maybe being hung up from a lack of a cathartic moment, I’d have to disagree. I think the thematic elements of that album are some of it’s greatest strengths. If I did have a hangup, it would be with the Memphis production, but only from it’s wholesale use throughout the album (except for the last two songs), and even then, it scores enough hits, (with “Maria” for example) that questioning it too hard doesn’t seem fair either.

      I like this album. And I think I have the potential to like it even more as time goes on. I also think a lot of folks, especially people who are country fans first, are going to find a lot of misunderstanding in this album initially, and the wording of my review was my attempt to guide them through that period until they recognize the good music. And this concern about people’s initial thoughts isn’t based solely off of my own thoughts, I’m hearing others say this same thing (see first comment on this article).

      I’m hopefully going to see JTE live in May. I think that will be my next solid opportunity to attempt to decide if this material is genius, or just darn good.

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      • Sorry, was in no way trying to say I thought you disliked it! I just kind of thought you seemed to be a bit of a loss. This is a heavy album.

        I enjoyed the review immensely and have been waiting for it for awhile.

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    • It funny you say you are able to envision what he is singing about as that is a hard thing for me to do. However JTE is one of the few artists that I can actually do that with and the first song he made me do that on was Yuma. To this day I can literally envision that poor boys whole walk all the way until he steps off the ledge and has the wind in his hair and the smile on his face. This is what makes JTE amazing..

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      • Yuma was the first JTE song I heard too. It plays like a damned movie in my head each time I hear it.

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  • Great review. JTE is the current king of music.

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  • im a huge fan of dudes’ music but another 30 minute album,for what $15-16?…why would I pay that much for an LP when I can just fork over $20 for an hour,hour and a half of a live show instead?…I mean come on man,I ain’t fucking rich. let’s come off a compilation of demo’s and throwaway’s or something.

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    • It’s currently $9.99 on Amazon. Of course, you can add $3 onto that if you buy it by itself. I ordered it with Ray Wylie’s new one, so I figure I paid $12 for it. Hope it shows up today.

      I hear what you’re saying, though, and the his short albums made me a little hestitant to buy his albums at first. Any album significantly under 40 minutes gives me a little pause.

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  • I’ve yet to pick this up Trig, not sure if it’s been released on CD in NZ yet. However, I did have a good listen to it the other day when it was streaming on GQ.com.

    The one thing that confounded me was his voice. It sounded, like you said, weak on some tracks and actually pitchy on others. He’s never had trouble staying on pitch so I was a bit surprised to hear some flat notes and it totally threw me off.

    I agree this one probably has legs. It didn’t immediately jump out and grab me at all. Mind you, Midnight at the Movies didn’t either. It’s taken me years to fall in love with that album.

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    • nice to know there is a fellow kiwi here…..regarding the album, I like what I have heard so far and will be getting it , can see this getting a lot of airtime and getting JTE name heard in new places.

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      • Hey Angel

        You may not see this comment as I just stumbled onto yours randomly. If you haven’t picked the album up yet and intend getting either the CD or vinyl, do it via JBHiFi online. I ordered the CD for $25 and they sent me the Yuma EP worth $15 for free.

        Hey, you going to see JTE when he’s here next week? I’ll be at the King’s Arms gig.

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  • When I got my copy today, there was a sticker on the package, referring to Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie. I did not know what to expect from this one, cause I’m still a bit split in my opinion of Harlem River. So I thought it would be more of a folk-album. It came out a bit different.
    On first listen I really liked the Memphis-sound,more soul than country, and with plenty rough edges. Certainly more coherent in sound than Harlem River.
    It also made me curious about your review, Triggerman, because it is not country, but it is JTE, and I have read what you wrote. Most times I read your review before I hear the music. Not this time. I was listening to JTE before I discovered SCM, and I am always a bit anxious when Exile on Main Street is mentioned in a review. It raises expectations which not always have been forfilled. But I have to agree here that there’s not a bad song on the album. No clear favorite yet, Won’t Be The Last Time is definitely one, Unfortunately, Anna I like a lot, and Maria for the ending.
    The order of the songs on my copy appear to be different from yours. Last Time is track 7, last track is Movin’On, and that works alright, I think. It reminded me of early Steve Earle, and he mentions his father in the first line of opening track Am I That Lonely Tonight.
    He is still his father’s son, and he made a great album.

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    • Hi Michiel. My album has the same order as yours, and Trig’s comment about “It Won’t Be the Last Time” being the last song struck me as odd, but I figured maybe it was the last song recorded? In any event, the final order is perfect because as I said earlier, the album opens and closes mentioning his father, and leaves one hopeful. Alhough the song title is “Movin’ On”, he says he’s “trying to move on”. Lots of meaning there…

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      • Yeah, apparently the song order on my copy was skewed. That sometimes happens with review copies. I changed some stuff in the review to reflect the actual song order.

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  • I think your review is spot on for the most part, Trigger. Although I’m shocked I don’t see anyone else mentioning the weird vibrating noise on “Won’t Be The Last Time”. I cannot for the life of me understand why he decided to add that to the song.

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    • Hi Chris, good ear. I noticed it as well, but appreciate it. It helps set the mood of the song for me; and if you notice, it disappears (along with the hiss) after the line, “but now I’m getting older, and I feel this world closing in on me”. The vibration is almost like a heartbeat (pounding in your head when you have a hangover) or a demon trying to get out. It does (when he feels the world closing in on him) and then he’s “clear” and “shaking like a leaf”, recovering and sober. With the realization that it won’t be the last time he has that feeling…

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    • It’s an upright bass guitar being played with a bow.

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      • *upright bass

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      • Hi gilmoreag – I may be incorrect, and I won’t speak for Chris since it was his original observation; but, I was referring to the subtle bass drum that starts at 1:05 and not the double bass played with a bow starting at 0:47. The bass drum is very subtle but jarring…which is what I thought Chris was referring to when he said ‘weird vibrating noise’. The double bass and fiddle together are quite beautiful, so I didn’t believe he was referring to that. But, as I said, I may be incorrect…

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        • Oh, I hear that now. I honestly hadn’t noticed it being a distraction at all. The only thing I was able to construe as a “vibration” was the upright.

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  • i for one love justin. but i find that with all of his album are ok at first. then about a year later i really like them. then a year after that i love them.

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  • I have yet to hear the new album (besides the songs already available) but I will being JTE live tonight for the 2nd time. Harlem River was an album that you had to give time too as well, and I suspect (as trigger says) the new album will be the same thing… time. I think that the reason for this is because JTE is beyond what we are use to. As a songwritter is talent leads him to always be moving from idea to idea. We should be greatful for this… unlike some artists who end up doing 4 albums about the devil and partying… JTE is always evolving. Always pushing the envelope within himself as a song writter. I would rather have 4 JTE albums that have a completely different feel then 4 albums of the same song written to 24 different melodies with 6 hours of noise mixed in. JTE is having success and its deserved. There is a reason why he is on GQ Magazine cover, David Letterman, and many other media outlets… it’s because he is one of the best songwritters of our time. Dont call JTE a sellout, dont mistaken him for a hipster, but pay attention to him because of his profound talent. The Beatles didn’t just do I LOVE YOU YA YA YA for 20 years… JTE isn’t going to keep doing the same exact things either.

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  • Funny you said hipster IBWIP, because when i envision a hipster i see what i witnessed on Lettermen last night. I am not not knocking the guy, just saying. The song was just “meh” for me, at least for now
    I just could not stop guessing which SNL bandmember Circa 1987 he was dressed like.

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  • Four listens in and I’m very enthusiastic about this album. Right up there with Midnight at the Movies for me. For one thing, his singing is just knocking me out. Giddy with excitement to see him for the first time in Alexandria, VA in May.

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  • I fell in love with this album the second the needle hit. I had read your review first Trig and was ready to have it take its time and grow, but I feel like this is a natural progression from Harlem River. The songss are all incredible and the flow is great. I havent used the download card yet, it says it has an extra song not on the album, I have been too busy listening to this over and over. I think I already like it more than Midnight at the Movies which was my favorite of his.

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  • I’ve tried for a week to like this record I just don’t. It’s hard for me to even put it on.. it’s still JTE so it’s better than most music out there but it doesn’t live up to being worthy of getting played on my iPod. There’s not even one song that wow’s me enough to put on. I’ll listen to his old stuff and look forward to an album geared more toward his americana/alt-country fans. That being said this is the most honest review I’ve read on the album.

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  • I’m interested to know what everybody considers JTEs greatest album to date…

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    • Mine would still have to be “Midnight At The Movies” but I’m still open to the idea of the idea of this becoming my favorite in the future.

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      • Yep, I’m with you Trig. Infact, I’m already there. Definitely his best album to date in my mind. I’ve had it for just on a week now and can’t stop playing it.

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    • Great question Bones. Since you said ‘album’, I’ll give you my $0.02 worth. After listening to “NGCtWYFAMN” for a straight week, and then going back to his other albums, I’d have to say this current album is my favorite. It is a complete album in the way “The Wall” was for Pink Floyd (…no, I’m not comparing the albums, just how the albums fit together and flow). No doubt, some of JTE’s greatest songs are on “Midnight at the Movies”; but, as an album, it does not flow as well as this one (in my opinion). I think the current album is a masterpiece of sound, emotion, and meaning. This may seem odd to some, but it makes me feel ‘connected’ with the artist (again, the same way “The Wall” does). One can almost share the artists pain, hope, triumph, and despair…

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  • After listening to the stream on GQ I was a little let down but once the album actually came out and I listened to it again all the way through I was very surprised. I dont know why I would be surprised because I think all of his stuff is great, I just for whatever reason didnt think this would be as strong of an effort as it is. The only song on the album that I dont like is Unfortunately Anna but other than that I love every song. His voice is not quite as strong. It almost sounds like he is running out of breath on a lot of songs but after awhile it just adds to rawness. Being that they recorded the entire album live with no overdubs, it takes a little while to get use to the raw feel of it but once you do it just feels so damn authentic. I didnt think anything would ever stack up against Midnight at the Movies but am thrilled to say this album just might. It just does it in a completely different way.

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  • this album deserves two guns up

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  • So since this album has had time to be fully digested what is your final verdict, Trigger? It has grown into my favorite from him.

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    • I’m still mulling. Even after seeing him and this material live. Can I keep it at 1 3/4 of 2 guns up, but still nominate it for Album of the Year?

      I’ll probably have some more to say about it come the half-year album recap in a week or two.

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  • It’s very ironic you have posted this today, as I just pulled out my copy that I hadn’t played in a few weeks today. As I was listening to it and marveling at how truly wonderful it is, I thought of you and this review. I have no doubt this is his best album to date.

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  • To be honest, I’m a bit taken aback by your fondness for this work, Trigger. To my ear, it was a tad dull. Okay, unremittingly dull. It’s not for lack of hooks or any other such shallow depreciation as it is that the music never seemed to go anywhere. As the saying goes, music is meant to take you on a journey with the artist as the guiding force. With Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, I felt as if I’d ended up in the same place and more accurately, like I’d barely moved at all. That’s a bit hyperbolic, yes, but I hope you get my point. That lack of soul you were complaining about on Harlem River Blues is all I could think about with this one. A few tracks in I kind of just wanted it to be over. Justin’s voice sounded ragged, and not in an emotional way but a strangled way. You hint at this in your review but it bugged me quite a bit. Not knowing anything about his personal life save for the fact that he has had problems with sobriety, his vocals personally struck me as under-the-influence here. I just couldn’t feel the emotions he was trying to convey, unless every song was intended to make me feel desolate. Minority here, but this definitely strikes me as his weakest to date (I expect to like Single Mothers based on samples I’ve heard but a full listen will tell).

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