Hayes Carll Mixes Politically-Charged Tunes with Love Songs and Dependable Wry Wit on ‘What It Is’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Following his rather bleak breakup album, Lovers and Leavers, Hayes Carll seems rejuvenated on What It Is. The album is co-produced by fellow songwriter and fiancée Allison Moorer and long-time cohort Brad Jones in Nashville. Carll wrote some of these songs alone and co-wrote others with Moorer, Matraca Berg, Adam Landry, and a few others. Themes run from the vicissitudes of relationships to aspects of our current political environment with a few unexpected stops along the way. As we know, Carll is a consummate songwriter – observant, literate, clever, and witty.

Although Carll hails from South Texas, this is very much a Nashville record in sound as he calls on some of Americana’s best with appearances by guitarists Joe V. McMahan and Will Kimbrough, multi-instrumentalists Fats Kaplan and Buddy Woodward, and Moorer and Bobby Bare Jr. on background vocals. Listen to the banjo and mandolin on the title track to appreciate the talents of these supporting musicians. The tune is the embodiment of a major theme – “What it was is gone forever/what it should be God only knows/what it is is right in front of me/And I’m not letting it go.”

Carll has long had been obsessed with the endings of things, not the beginnings. Time running out and missed opportunities are hallmarks of his work. Here, though, he talks about “getting off the sidelines” and doing something about it. It’s about appreciating the moment, having fun, loving one another, parenting, and being active rather than passive. It’s a newfound peace for him. Let’s take the political ones first; “Wild Pointy Finger” looks at how quickly we are to judge and condemn, while “Fragile Men” talks about insecurities and resistance to change (a reflection for sure on Charlottesville), and the honky-tonk rave-up “Times Like These” reminds us that the confusion of fake news and proliferation of social media are pulling us away from who we are and dividing us.

It’s a rare writer though that can cleverly convey these messages. Carll was impacted by the events in Charlottesville, taking “Fragile Men,” composed originally about his co-writer Lolo’s views on patriarchy to scathing indictment of those who can’t accept that the world is changing around them, trying to hang on because of their own weaknesses. Carll sounds like he’s got a new outlook, imparting earned wisdom on “Things You Don’t Wanna Know.” Imagery and worn clichés color the fiddle-driven “American Dream.”

It’s not all about politics though. Mixed in is a song about loss and a bar where nothing has changed in “Jesus and Elvis,” imbued by Kaplan’s weary pedal steel. He warns about fear becoming a mental roadblock in the choogling “If I May Be So Bold”, and renders beautiful love songs too in “None’ ya’” (as in, “it’s none of ya damn business”), yearning in the string-laden “Be There” and true affection in the gorgeous, warm closer “I Will Stay.” Commenting on the former, Carll wrote it about Moorer, saying, “She’s wildly eloquent but sometimes uses her own made-up language. She’s really practical, but will do things like paint the front porch ceiling turquoise because she believes it keeps the evil spirits out. She’s a unicorn and I just try to enjoy her magic and not screw it up.”

“I take stock of myself and the world around me and write about it,” Carll says. “Sometimes that’s my relationships, sometimes that’s my buddy at the bar and sometimes that’s political. This isn’t by any means a political record, but there are observations or my takes on certain things that are important. I understand a lot of people look to music as an escape, and it can be really upsetting when it feels like that’s disrupted. But I have a really low tolerance for the people who say ‘shut up and sing.’ It minimizes everybody’s voice. We are citizens, and we are artists.

“This record is made with the spirit of change, about my world and the world around me,” he says. “To let go of excuses. To find the courage to live life. To be in the moment.”

Hayes Carll has made some great records. This is his best one.

Photo credit: David McClister

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