Country music, as a format for radio, is for men who consider themselves small town boys, think your body looks like a back road, and wear dirty boots (no really, those are all phrases from the titles from the top six songs in country music for 2017). Country music, as a genre, is what we think about when we put modern country up against the authenticity tests by asking if it's as good as Dolly, Johnny, or Merle. The kind of country that Brandi Carlile sings is the latter, and so much more.
She writes songs as vignettes that are what have, historically, defined country and folk music. She speaks to the average American; she is a mom, a wife, gay, an activist, a songwriter, a singer with a voice that goes all the way to the rafters, and a woman. Some part of who she is resides within most of us, so it's easy to find some song on By the Way, I Forgive You, out February 16, that speaks to you.
If the country format were about "real" America then Carlile's "Sugarfoot," the story of a respectable man taken down by opioid addiction, would be the No. 1 song on the radio right now. It's a topic more relevant, pressing, and relatable than nearly anything else being sung these days. The emotional heart of the album is its lead single, "The Joke." It is an emotional support system aimed at letting marginalized people in America know they are seen, be they people of color, LGBTQ+, immigrants, the disabled, or anyone else who feels discarded and dehumanized under the current administration and congressional majority. They are, after all, as real as any other American. "The Mother" explores the sacrifices and joy that motherhood brings a woman, while "Fulton County Jane Doe" looks at the other side of the coin for women by reclaiming the story of a woman who was the unidentified victim of a murder. "Party of One" paints a painfully real picture of what it's like to be in a committed relationship, though Carlile's point of view on it as a gay woman adds an extra layer of responsibility on herself with regard to the institution of marriage. She doesn't take its accessibility for granted. There's a sense of absolution for people on the other side of the equation in tracks like "Whatever You Do" and "Most of All," the latter of which has echoes of the Judds singing "Daddy's Hands" and so much of that hopey-changey stuff the Obamas gave us.
The best parts of the album are when she lets her voice really go, whether that is into a joyful or mournful place. She sounds freer than she ever has here, but on tracks like "Hold Out Your Hand," with it's rapid verses and slowed down chorus, and "Every Time I Hear That Song," which is one of those songs that instantly feels like something you know inside and out, she reaches for the apex of what her sound can be, and it's a delight. For this album, she worked with country music's favorite renegade producer, Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Zac Brown Band), and the scion of country music royalty, Shooter Jennings (as in, son of Waylon). They bring out a looseness and playfulness in the recordings lends a confident sheen to Carlile's style that feels amplified.
The only thing stopping Carlile from being Adele or Kelly Clarkson or Elton John for that matter is ubiquity in pop culture. She's got the voice, she's got the songs, she's got the message. But hers is not a voice that the country format has shown any interest in embracing. Her vision, which leads her to become more vital with each record she releases, isn't one that major labels have been able to embrace. That is troubling because if she isn't the future, Carlile is absolutely a voice that at the present we need to champion.
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