The nebulous sub-genre of Americana often comes across as a version of country music for progressives who don’t want to deal with the celebrations of gun culture and sexist attitudes often found in mainstream country. Perhaps its listeners just don’t want to encounter any Republicans.
Brandi Carlile’s new album “By The Way, I Forgive You” fits squarely into that sub-genre, recalling artists ranging from Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, and Carlile’s fellow lesbian k. d. lang, to Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt. Its first single, “The Joke,” is rapidly becoming a hit on Triple A radio, and it’s the album’s best song. Carlile has found a fair amount of commercial success, although her 2007 album “The Story” took 10 years to go gold. Her albums “Bear Creek” and “The Firewatcher’s Daughter” have debuted in the top 10 of Billboard magazine’s album sales chart.
“The Joke” is also the most politically pointed song on this album. It implicitly addresses the way humor has been weaponized by Trumpists and the alt-right, but it asserts that “the joke’s on them… let ‘em laugh while they can.” The first verse is about a boy who is being bullied, and although Carlile never specifies that he’s gay, her description of him strongly implies that. The second verse is addressed to a young woman who lives in “her brother’s world” and deals with blatant misogyny. The swooping strings that close the song sound like a victory march.
Carlile often begins her songs with acoustic guitar and builds to a more complicated production from there. On this album, she worked with Paul Buckmaster, who did string arrangements for all of Elton John’s ‘70s music. (She credits John with inspiring her to learn to play the piano.) On the album’s third song, “Hold Out Your Hand,” her vocals and quick acoustic guitar strumming almost get drowned out by loud backing vocals and piano 30 seconds into it. Her songs are generally more effective the simpler they sound, but Carlile never heard a piano/ strings/ backing vocals arrangement she didn’t love. She sometimes seems to be trying to bury her own voice.
This album’s production goes against the strengths of its songs. The prominence of backing vocals, in particular, is intended to give the album a feeling of community often missing from music made by singer-songwriters who base their albums around their own guitar or piano playing. Instead, it just feels heavy-handed.
“Fulton County Jane Doe” is one of the album’s most country-oriented songs, but it’s addressed to an anonymous woman found murdered in a field in Georgia and acknowledges the frequency of violence against women. Some of Carlile’s lyrics address the specifics of being a lesbian. Her second single, “The Mother,” is addressed to her daughter Evangeline. It points out that she was deliberately conceived, not the product of an “accident” that heterosexuals might have, but also acknowledges that Carlile and Evangeline might run into hostility from people who don’t think it’s legitimate for lesbians to raise children.
“Party of One” is about her experience marrying after living most of her life never expecting that she wouldn’t be able to. It tells the story of her meeting her wife and falling in love instantly as well as her anxiety that her wife might divorce her after they spent so much effort fighting for the right to get married. But the song also acknowledges that tensions exist in any marriage. Carlile complains that her wife drinks too much and repeatedly emphasizes her own exhaustion. Here, the gradual build-up from piano to strings proves powerful, in part because it takes several minutes to happen. But in the end, she keeps saying, “I am yours.” This is the one song on this album where the interplay among lyrics, vocals, and music really seems to have been carefully thought out. Its last minute is purely instrumental and dominated by strings.
“By The Way, I Forgive You” is fatally marred by its tendency to bury Carlile’s folk and country roots — which are hard to reconcile with her love for Elton John — beneath a sea of overblown production. I think the demos for this album would probably be more successful than the finished product. “The Joke” and “Party of One” still hold up fairly well, but listening to the entire 45 minutes of “By The Way, I Forgive You” soon creates the sensation of getting lost in an ocean of blandness. Despite her talent as a songwriter, I’d rather listen to Lucinda Williams’s self-titled album or Neko Case’s “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.”
BRANDI CARLILE | “By The Way, I Forgive You” | Elektra Records | Feb. 16 release | bytheway.b