Brandi Carlile Brings the Drama and Dynamics to a Brilliantly Sung In These Silent Days: Album Review
If you require any proof that Brandi Carlile is as gifted a singer as we’ve got right now in pop, folk or rock ‘n’ roll, one listen to her seventh album, “In These Silent Days,” should suffice. Or maybe make it two or three, since a first hearing will probably find you focusing on the material itself, her first fresh batch since 2018’s breakthrough “By the Way, I Forgive You.” It may really be the voice she’s found as a lyricist that in some ways first stands out, with a sense of compassion and healing you’re hard-pressed to find in much other popular music nowadays, grounded by cutting insights and self-lacerating confessions that make the music sound shook, as much as woke. Soon enough, anyway, you’ll be paying more attention to the actual voice, as Carlile effortlessly glides between octaves while, somehow, still sounding completely conversational — the everyday diva we didn’t know we needed until she showed up at our door.
Fans of the singer-songwriter sensibilities of the 1970s will especially find a lot to love in the rich variety of material in “In These Silent Days,” which, under the expert co-production of Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings, certainly sounds analog-era, however it was recorded. If reverse-engineering your own genetic heritage were possible, Carlile might refashion herself into the love child of Elton John and Joni Mitchell, and you hear a lot of both branches of the spiritual family tree here. While spent much of the three years since “By the Way, I Forgive You” seeming ready for the country — co-founding the Highwomen; co-fashioning Tanya Tucker’s comeback — there are only trace amounts of that inclination in the new record. That is to say: no honky-tonk, but plenty of “Honky Château,” and “Blue,” and more than enough of her own distinctive vibe to show that the apple has fallen just far enough from the tree to start its own 21st-century orchard.
Carlile has said that she wanted to give herself over completely to “drama” on this record, which maybe is a way of saying: Come for the emotion, but don’t count on any radio-targeting power plays, or even anything quite quite as anthemic and destined for years of summer amphitheater sing-alongs as “Wherever Is Your Heart.” She makes good on the promise of mellow-drama from the start with “Right on Time,” which seems to pick up where the previous record’s closing ballad, “Party of One,” left off: sparse but ready to go big, and unfolding with a lyric that seems to be joining a domestic argument already in progress. The particulars of this fight, we can’t really guess at, any more than we can predict whether or not it’s a battle that will end in reconciliation. What we do know for sure is that this super-dynamic ballad is the song that introduces the album’s title phrase, “in these silent days” — an overt allusion to quarantine conditions as one reason we might all have withdrawn more from one another lately, or further gotten under each other’s skin. In a song that only lasts three minutes, she sings the chorus three times, only in the last instance modulating up to an even higher note than the previous high note we thought was at the top of her range, that means to say: Silent days or not, she will not go quietly. That vocal climax would count as a show-off moment for almost anyone else, but for Carlile, who only takes the notes where they need to go, it’s a day at the oratorical office.
But the album isn’t all about dramaturgy. Having gotten “Right on Time” off her chest, she proceeds directly to the lightest fare on the album, “You and Me on the Rock.” That’s as in the biblical built-upon-this-rock, not as in “on the rocks,” but building it here on marital bliss, not Jesus. Carlile has described this effervescently acoustic number as the one time on the new record where she deliberately allowed herself to go full Mitchell, and it’s the cheerful Mitchell of “California,” though its fast-paced strumminess might also put you in mind of the lighter side of Paul Simon: think “Me and Joni Down by the Schoolyard,” maybe. It’s the one song on the album that features female backing vocals, from the duo Lucius (whose next album she’s producing), who up the ebullience — though you could almost wonder why Carlile even needs to bring women on board for b.g.v. when her bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth, who harmonize on the rest of the tracks, are capable of going about as girly as anybody.
The Hanseroth twins come into their own soon enough on the third track, “This Time Tomorrow,” a showcase for the three-part harmonies that they and Carlile have gotten down to an alchemic science in their 20 years of collaborating as singers, players and writers. “This Time Tomorrow” could have been the ending to the album, if Carlile sequenced it in more predictable fashion: While it could be directed to a wife or friend as well as a child, it feels like a refresher of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” with a bit more dirt under the fingernails, populated by warnings as well as promises (“You will know what it means to be lost and without love / May you fight to kill that deafening sound”).
Parental reflects pop up here even more than they did on “…I Forgive You,” which had “The Mother” as its second-most-standout track, after “The Joke.” Whereas “This Time Tomorrow” could be read as a dark lullaby, there’s a lighter, more traditional bedtime story in the form of “Stay Gentle,” which sounds almost Tin Pan Alley in its admonitory sweetness — and which has Carlile’s purer tones sounding more Joan Baez than Joni, for once. Her maternalism gets darker again in the fearsome “Mama Werewolf.” The softer “Letter to the Past” treads a fine line where it’s not clear initially if she’s writing a missive to a beloved, obstinate daughter or her younger self. By the time she sings “You’re a stonewall in a world full of rubber bands / You’re a pillar of belief still biting your shaking hands,” it’s kind of clear the answer has to be: both.
“In These Silent Days” doesn’t go loud-loud too often, but a couple of outright rockers lend the album some big instrumental as well as vocal dynamics. “Sinners Saints and Fools” may be a bit over the top in embracing Broadway rock-opera levels of drama, but the subject arguably merits that theatrical a degree of righteous anger, going angrily after the religious right for hardening its collective heart to the plight of immigrants. It may also have a little of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in it, but the devil in this case is a man of God who finally gets consigned to hell.
The album’s real rock centerpiece is “Broken Horses,” named after the No. 1 New York Times bestseller Carlile released in the spring, expounding on some of the unreconciled feelings Carlile found still consuming her after wrapping up the writing of that memoir. Just about certain to be the galvanizing highlight of tours to come, the track almost feels like an album track out of the heyday of (here’s the comparison you didn’t see coming) the Who, not just because Carlile and company recall Pete Townshend’s ability to combine the contemplative and the furious, but because Phil Hanseroth is peeling off some particularly Entwistle-esque bass lines once the acoustic-guitar opening gives way to more explosive textures. If you love the Carlile who can sit in with Pearl Jam or take Chris Cornell’s place at a Soundgarden tribute, you might wish there was a whole album’s worth of rock ‘n’ roll where this rager came from, but maybe another time. “I wear my father’s leather on the inside of my skin,” she sings in one hell of an opening line, her voice cracking from the very first high-pitched wail, like a muscle car peeling its tires right out of the gate. It’s a vocal tour de force, like pretty much everything else on the album.
Carlile would seem to be a happy soul these days, having put some distance, as a family woman, between herself and breakup albums like “Give Up the Ghost.” If that’s so, thankfully, she hasn’t lost the ability to write a heart-wrenchingly dark song about doomed relationships, of which there are two on the new album — one, “When You’re Wrong,” looking in from the outside at a friend or relative who’s losing the light in her eyes and “lay(ing) down every night with a goddamn liar,” and another, the closing “Throwing Good After Bad,” that brings her back to first-person splitsville territory. For an album that has so many high-minded moments, Carlile isn’t afraid to get down into the dregs of how low a relationship can go — or how mundane: “I know you’re bored,” she sings in “Throwing Good After Bad,” in one of those moments of bracing honesty you rarely get even in the reemerging realm of confessional songwriting nowadays. But it’s not all that prosaic, of course. “You want a movie dancer, you want blood from a stone,” she sings, slipping up into her falsetto in a way probably only her all-time heroine could equal. “You got a beautiful mind, and the soul of a coyote,” she concludes, never far from seeing the angel and mongrel in all of us.
The album ends as it begins, with a big dose of promised drama. But for all its theatrical/vérité tensions, it’s inescapable that Carlile means to un-fray listeners’ nerves with her understanding, empathetic tone … never bashful about embodying the eternal anxieties of a born fighter, but dipping even more deeply into the balm.
And even in “Mama Werewolf” — in which she portrays herself as the fearsome beast of the title, wondering if her daughter will discover her family’s legacy of anger and find the silver bullet to put the intergenerational angst out of its misery — she is still mama, after all. A gentle monster? You could say that of the album in its entirety.
Producers: Dave Cobb, Scooter Jennings. Songwriters: Carlile, Tim Hanseroth, Phil Hanseroth, Cobb. Musicians: Carlile, Tim Hanseroth, Phil Hanseroth, Chris Powell, Cobb, Jennings, Josh Neumann, Jess Wolfe, Holly Laessig.
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