An emotional tour de force
This review could easily be composed entirely of lyrical selections from its subject album, and believe that the temptation to write it in this manner is great. Sure, it would entail the complete forfeiture of this writer’s little voice, but to offer as complete and pure a portrait of the first class songwriting on By The Way, I Forgive You as is possible in print, free from the clouding effect of commentary and analysis, would more than justify that minor loss – and yet, it would still be a foolish and grave disservice, as these words were meant to be heard and felt from Brandi Carlile’s formidable pipes and not from a screen. So it falls on the critic to convince you, emphatically, to listen to this album.
Since her 2005 debut, Ms. Carlile has amassed an impressive following within and outside of the realm of music, with admirers and friends ranging from Adele to Elton John, to Margo Price, to Kris Kristofferson and Barack Obama. For this, her sixth studio outing, she enlisted producers, Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings, to oversee proceedings, both with as impressive resumes as you are likely to find in modern roots music. They lend the album crisp brightness, muscular depth and the aural idiosyncrasies that define their work and set it apart from general alt-country fare.
The next crucial contributor outside of the band is the recently departed, legendary composer and arranger Paul Buckmaster, who created the album’s exquisite string parts. Having previously worked together on Give Up the Ghost and Live at Benaroya Hall, the fruit of this partnership is not entirely new, but the two do some of their finest joined work here, with Carlile’s barely controlled shouts and Buckmaster’s stirring strings doling out transcendence in thick belts on tracks like “The Joke” and “Whatever You Do.” If By The Way, I Forgive You is the last work by Buckmaster, who has worked with The Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and many more in his long career, it is a fine coda and a worthy entry to his storied oeuvre.
But at the heart of all this, of course, is Carlile herself, and what a heart it is. Difficult is the task of capturing her mastery of voice and pen on this album without sounding hyperbolic. Her vocal abilities are, of course, well known by now. She is in exceptional form on By The Way, I Forgive You, but where she most completely and consistently mystifies are in her words; capturing worlds and histories in couplets with a deftness and empathy that any writer would envy. Every song on the album is dense and worthy of excavation so I will (must) settle for discussing only a few of my favorites.
The spunky verses of “Hold Out Your Hand” detail pedestrian anguish, times when “the devil don’t take a break,” but the monstrous uplift of the choruses, their sheer, huge grandeur, assert the indomitability of bonded human spirits to inspiring effect. Just after, Carlile commits perhaps the greatest ode to the casual miracle of motherhood ever recorded to tape with “The Mother,” in which she repeatedly and proudly declares the wondrous truth that, despite difficulties and complications and concessions, “I am the mother of Evangeline,” and that is credibly better than anything else. It isn’t the only tearjerker on the album, but a line like, “All the wonders I have seen I will see a second time / From the inside of the ages, through your eyes,” assure that it is probably the most effective.
“Sugartooth” is the most liable tune to puzzle and haunt and provoke after many listenings with its calm fatalism, godlessness and a shattered, doomed protagonist, a “slave to a sugartooth.” “There’s no point now to judge him in vain / If you haven’t been there you don’t know the pain,” Carlile sympathetically sings in the bleak, strange narrative’s most straightforward line, maybe functioning also as a meta warning to listeners.
Everything coalesces on the closer, “Party Of One,” a rare case of a singer-songwriter not just targeting Blue-era Joni Mitchell’s minimalist timbrel approach, but nearing her lyrical sophistication and emotional bareness. It is a heart-stopping song and one I won’t try to reduce to a few representative lines, but it finds Carlile torn between future and past, between leaving and coming home, examining an imperfect love piercingly and admitting to exhaustion from it. The stunning orchestral finale gives a sense of resolution, but the genius of Carlile is such that it does not – cannot – feel unqualified. Few things are certain in any of these songs and By The Way, I Forgive You begs for revisitation and scrutiny and thought. Overriding all of its technical merits, it is a jarringly real album. Listen to it – closely – then listen to it again and again. It will not leave you, and you should not want it to.