If reflection is a natural process of aging, songwriting is among its greatest agents. On his new album, Kids in the Street, alt-country artist Justin Townes Earle validates such wisdom. The singer spends much of his time here locked reflectively on his past, looking backward in time in order to make sense of it.
On Kids, Earle is as keen a songwriter as ever, engaging with the common lore familiar to any who traverse the backroads of the country genre. There’s copious talk of late nights, cars, the virtues of female companionship, drinking with friends, and following your dreams, just as Earle’s bassy warbling commands center stage over acoustic and pedal steel guitars, a lively rhythm section, and occasional flirtations with woodwinds and strings. But throughout, there is a sense of mature detachment from the memories Earle and his band excavate, and this is what helps raise Kids in the Street above the vocabulary of cliché.
The past that Kids tackles is almost equally weighed with happiness, bitterness, anger, pleasure, and regret. Earle’s smartest conceit here is his ability to express this spectrum of emotion without trying to recreate the moments in which they occurred. Instead, he retells his youthful travails with a wizened edge, effectively playing the grown-up narrator to his own adolescence. As a result, the overarching tone of the album is one of zen-like remembrance. These things are neither good nor bad. They are simply a factual tapestry.
Remarkably, Earle managed to portray his stories this way while simultaneously crafting a crop of fun, danceable tunes. Opener “Champagne Corolla” is nothing short of a romp, and “15-25,” one-half ode to and one-half elegy for youthful partying, is as joyful a send-off to a carousing past as one is likely to find on any album this year.
Kids in the Street does stagnate a little around the midsection, starting at the titular track, with a lengthy series of slower songs. Each in this pack is fine individually, but suck out the energy strung together. The album’s latter half struggles to reemerge from this rut.
Overall, the greatest takeaway here is that the past is the past. All one can do is accept that it has already happened. If this seems like an inelegant thesis statement, it is probably because you have heard this sort of thing repeatedly, to the point of banality. Yet, if we consider how difficult it actually is to live that way—to not allow our memories, regrets, and nostalgia to rule us—the unpretentious expression of such that Earle achieves on Kids in the Street is no small accomplishment.