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It turns out Justin Townes Earle's 2014 album Single Mothers was literally only half the story; Earle completed 20 songs during the Single Mothers sessions, and eventually he opted to release the material on two separate albums, so four months after the release of Single Mothers, Absent Fathers brings us the remainder of this song cycle. The titles would suggest these albums are two sides of the same story, and Absent Fathers certainly is of a piece stylistically with the earlier album, full of songs about busted families, relationships run adrift, and lives stuck in neutral, with Earle's mournful, soul-inflected vocals supported by a purposefully spare rhythm section and occasionally the lonesome cry of a pedal steel guitar. While these songs are not without their moments of wit and bursts of rock & roll energy, Absent Fathers is, like Single Mothers, a downbeat set for the most part, with Earle obsessed with where his characters have gone wrong as both parents and partners, and while there's a good-natured, easygoing drift to "Slow Monday" and some tough R&B strutting in "Call Ya Momma," even these songs have a moody undertow that reinforces the gravity of Earle's themes. Like Single Mothers, Absent Fathers is subtle in its attack but deep in its emotional force, and if it's often blunt in terms of the emotional pain that befalls the people he writes about, he's invariably compassionate as he struggles to find comfort in a place where no one will come out unscathed. Like Earle's best work, Absent Fathers is low on flash and high on emotional honesty and perceptive songwriting, and paired with Single Mothers this is some of his most intelligent and moving music to date.