A style and sound can be deceptive. So it’s little surprise that with his parched vocals, weary demeanor and songs that bear a sense of worn, ragged reflection, Hayes Carll doesn’t come across like a man with an ample list of accomplishments. A recent Grammy nomination, a number of chart triumphs and some highly impressive accolades from the public and pundits alike suggest that Carll might be doing far better than he lets on. Nevertheless, the dourly-named Lovers and Leavers still seems to suggest that even in the most troubling circumstances, perseverance is always an option. That’s fortuitous, not only for the one who narrates these hard-bitten tales, but for the audience that’s fortunate enough to benefit from his insights.
Carll’s latest finds the sardonic Texas troubadour dryly circumspect and typically understated, and with Joe Henry directing from behind the boards, the sentiments are even more sustained. “I dreamed of something bigger, but it wasn’t meant to be,” he moans on the seemingly autobiographical “Sake of the Song,” indicating that he’s yet to realize the goals he’s laid out before him. Then again, as critics will attest, that thought is clearly at odds with reality. Even Carll himself can offer little evidence to support that contention. Three songs mention the word “love” in their titles (“The Love That We Need,” “Love Don’t Let Me Down” and “Love Is So Easy”), suggesting that Hayes’ deadpan demeanor might actually mask the fact he has reason to hold out hope.
Ultimately, Lovers and Leavers affirms the fact that the aforementioned critical praise has been well-founded. Carll’s hardbitten tales bring favorable comparisons to Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson, and, along with the grit in these grooves, a similar sort of wisdom prevails. No, this is the sunniest effort out there, but it is one of the most thoughtful treatises on the human spirit one will likely encountere. And that in itself is cause for celebration.