For Justin Townes Earle, there’s a difference between politics and social issues — and the latter is what defines his The Saint of Lost Causes album (due out May 24), whose video for the track “Frightened by the Sound” is premiering exclusively below.
“With this group of songs I wanted, for the first time in my career, to look at social problems in America,” Earle tells Billboard. “I think people misunderstand Bruce Springsteen as a political writer; I think he’s more of a social writer. He writes about social problems, people problems. And I wanted to approach it like that. If there’s any time in my lifetime where we need to do this, then this is the time.”
Earle’s subjects on The Saint of Lost Causes include the Flint water crisis in Michigan, the flagging coal industry in Appalachia, issues in South Central Los Angeles and the Lower East Side of New York and more, with observations drawn from his travels since he began touring with his father, Steve Earle. The point of the project, he adds, is to demonstrate that despite seeming differences, these social problems can serve as uniting factors in the country.
“I don’t think people in Flint, Mich., and Charleston, W. Va., think they have anything in common, but they do — a lot in common,” explains Earle, whose first song for the album was “Flint City Shake.” “These are people who have driven America through an industry and then had America completely turn their backs on them. So I see that connection there. You see distinct cultures and distinct things in different towns, but they’re dealing with the same kinds of problems.
“Basically, I’m not gonna write a song called “Mr. President’ and talk directly to any politician or anybody who I feel doesn’t listen. I’m not gonna waste my breath. I’m gonna talk to the people, we the people, and do my best as a songwriter and somebody who’s up on stage performing to still feel like I stand amongst them and make them feel like I stand shoulder to shoulder with them.”
Amid that, however, “Frightened by the Sound” and its impressionistic video of a couple in a tense repose is a bit of a mid-album respite, an unspecific rumination about the toll Earle’s song subject exacts on real people. “That song is not necessarily about one thing,” he notes. “It’s about this world we’re living in, and what could happen to us at any point. We’re probably in one of the more tense times on Earth since the Cuban Missile Crisis — in this country, anyway. So it’s about the relationships and the way we relate to to one another and life and every day with all that going on. In art we have to leave a certain amount of things open to interpretation — otherwise, how can anybody invest in it, y’know?”
Earle is currently enjoying the start of Major League Baseball’s regular season (he’s an avowed fanatic) but will be hitting the road to support his New West release. And the album’s sense of place has given him some target markets to hit this time out. “I’m actually going to be in Charleston, W. Va., for a ‘Mountain Stage’ there,” he says. “I’ve been to Flint but I’ve never played a show in Flint. It would be something I’d definitely be interested in doing. I don’t think anybody’s gonna get me to play in South Central Los Angeles. I would in a heartbeat but I don’t think there’s a place for me to play. So we’ll see. It would definitely be good to play some of these songs in the places they’re about, that’s for sure.”