Review Summary: The devil can’t get your soul
Brandi Carlile’s music operates as a salve for life’s pains. Despite working in the increasingly overdone and frequently tepid style of folky singer/songwriter music, her music is distinguished by the undeniable sense of heart with which she and constant collaborators and co-songwriters Phil and Tim Hanseroth - often referred to as the Twins - imbue it. By the Way, I Forgive You
, Carlile and the Twins’ sixth record and possibly their most consistent to date, continues this trend in grand fashion, delivering to their fans another beautiful set of songs to cherish.
The album draws on the influences of Americana and 70s folk rock, the songs adorned with simple arrangements of guitar, piano, drum and bass. The music is tastefully executed but rarely flashy - with a classy production job by Dave Cobb, the current go-to man for roots music, Carlile’s vocals and lyrics are brought to the fore, with the Twins’ solid-as-ever harmonies coloring in the background. Indeed to the extent that all of Carlile’s music is collaborative, this record feels like the most “hers” she’s done in some years. Occasionally the music will swell with lush string sections and on “Hold Out Your Hand” she is joined by a chanting group vocal, but these moments serve mostly to backup and provide emphasis to Carlile’s words. That is not to say that the instrumentation is merely secondary; indeed, its simplicity serves to make its impact all the more effective in its grander moments, such as when “Party of One” transitions from its sparse piano introduction to an orchestral showcase.
Given the relative sparsity of the music, the lyrics are due much of the listener’s attention. In Carlile’s own words, By the Way, I Forgive You
is an album “about finding a way to fundamentally forgive and accept life for being f*cking hard.” It feels like a piece of work to live inside of, one that finds insight in both big and small moments. Across these ten songs Carlile traces the lines of memory, family, regret, faith and forgiveness. Some tracks are explicitly autobiographical while others are affecting character sketches of lost souls. An example of the first category is “The Mother”, wherein she reflects on how becoming a mother has changed her perspective on life, as the rest of the world goes on just as before but her mind is now constantly consumed with thoughts of her daughter. Another stunning moment is the country-rocker “Sugartooth”, about a man “born with a sweet tooth he couldn't beat” whose life has been ruined by addiction - the titular sugartooth becoming a symbol of that inescapable temptation which, along with mental illness, ultimately proves his ruin. The track becomes a real tear-jerker toward the end as Carlile intones, “They found him lying on his bed / With a gun in his hand and a quiet head / His broken heart now is finally gone / But I know that he had to hurt for too long.” Similarly, in “Fulton County Jane Doe” Carlile draws on the true story of an unidentified female corpse found in 1988, consoling her that she was more than just a forgotten body but a person who was once loved and cared for. These stories evoke pathos gently, Carlile’s committed delivery and the plainspoken words doing most of the communicating, drawing the listener along but never coming across as preachy.
Over the course of these tales, Carlile struggles with her faith. God and the devil are frequent recurring themes, with lines such as, “The devil don't take no break” and “If there's a God in heaven, you can show me” peppered throughout. She seems to be grappling with how a benevolent God could claim to watch over a world in which has everywhere been tainted by the devil’s inexorable influence. She doesn’t provide a clear answer to these questions, but instead seems to suggest that we find strength within ourselves and to draw support from others around us. Indeed, in “Hold Out Your Hand”, Carlile offers herself up as a fount of fortitude, crying out, “Hold out your hand / Take hold of mine now / Round and round we go / Don't you wanna dance" / I'm a dying man” - a striking image, shunning the bridles of life and dancing in the face of death.
In the end, though, Carlile seems to find consolation in spite of life’s trials. She knows that “Sometimes it’s harder to forgive / Than to forget,” but she strives to reach forgiveness anyways. By the Way, I Forgive You
is an account of a woman staring a cruel world in the eye and finding the beauty and comfort in the spaces between the pain. The album’s Joni Mitchell-reminiscent closer ends with a declaration of devotion, Carlile proclaiming, “I am yours” repeatedly to an estranged lover. She seems to be advising the listener to do the same - yes, life is f*cking hard, but don’t let it defeat you; devote yourself to those you care about. It may sound like a platitude, but she conveys these messages with such conviction that it’s hard not to leave By the Way, I Forgive You
feeling just a little better about everything.