Review Summary: Willi of the People
Whatever preconceptions you may have about down-home acoustic twang albums, re-conceive ‘em posthaste! Willi Carlisle has inhaled a far-reaching rainbow of art from and about rural America, and then breathed it right back out as a dozen life-affirming, soulfully subversive songs that find unexpected wells of timeless pathos in well-worn musical idioms. Peculiar, Missouri
leaves his promising 2018 debut To Tell You The Truth
completely in the dust, hailing the proper arrival of a fresh and vital force for good in modern americana. If "voice of a generation" is still any kind of sensible label to slap on a folk singer, Carlisle earns it several times over here.
At its core, Peculiar, Missouri
is at least as much an album of folk tales
as an album of folk songs
, densely populated with oddball outsiders and hallucinatory roadside phenomena, and from beginning to end Carlisle shines, first and foremost, as a storyteller. His imagery and characterizations hold the loving detail of a writer for whom specificity is a passion rather than an obligation, carefully combing through the minutiae of a lyrical situation for whatever can convey the clearest emotion and meaning. Whether he's squeezing an entire life of quiet desperation into five minutes of melancholic perfection on "Tulsa's Last Magician" or relating a full-on existential crisis on the breathtaking title track, Carlisle's lyricism remains down-to-earth, humane, as intimate as a campfire singalong. At multiple points, he offhandedly addresses the audience as "friend" or "friends", and every single time it sounds like he wholeheartedly means it. The album’s impressive vocabulary and witty turns of phrase make for an effective and versatile toolbox, to be sure, but they’d be worth little if their principal use wasn’t focusing the edges of Carlisle’s musical personality and profoundly empathetic worldview.
That worldview extends far beyond the scope of individuated emotional response, though: an uncompromising populist streak and a keen sense of justice run all throughout the album. Sometimes it’s barely even beneath the skin, as on “Vanlife”’s cheeky rejection of the gig economy grind, or “Life on the Fence”’s jagged explorations of small-town repression and internalized homophobia. Other times it’s harder to sniff out at a glance, like “I Won’t Be Afraid”’s ode to small victories, but even then the overtones are unmistakably of perseverance, solidarity, and mercy. This ethos acts as a north star, always guiding the music towards righteous ends, whether gently or firmly. If anyone is starting to tug at their collar over the prospect of an Issues Album, rest assured, Carlisle is far too committed a dramatist to settle for drab soapboxing. All these lofty ideals are nestled within tried-and-true narratives that pack at least one more surprise than you expect on first listen, and in narrators you’ll rapidly find yourself rooting for. The messages hit home and ring true not in spite of their familiar trappings, but exactly because of them.
Few genres hold covers in higher regard than folk, and Peculiar, Missouri
is no exception, with roughly a third of the album consisting of material that has been found rather than created from scratch. It’s a bold move for such an instantly recognizable lyrical voice, but again, Carlisle makes a point to dodge expectations and do things with a twist that bring his distinct sensibilities to the forefront. For a prime example, “Este Mundo” comes courtesy of obscure folkie Steve Cormier, who adapted a poem by even-more-obscure folkie John Sparrow, who in turn adapted an interview with a man named Nicolas Lopez about his childhood in New Mexico territory in the 1870s. Carlisle transforms the song yet again, from a contemporary folk tune to an accordion-based corrido
in the style of Gilberto Perez, to highlight the story’s setting. It veers dangerously close to ersatz conjunto
, but Carlisle’s aching, mournful delivery lays bare the tragedy at the core of the song, and his rendition shines as a result. Elsewhere, he provides “Rainbow Mid Life’s Willow” with a striking accompaniment of almost ambient fiddle and organ, and reworks poems by E.E. Cummings and Carl Sandburg into musical laments that highlight their relevance to an era neither man lived to see. Hell, the least creative track here here could just as well be described as the most faithful, a straightforward rendition of Utah Phillips’ “Goodnight Loving Trail” that shows off Carlisle’s abiding fandom.
In addition to these left-field re-imaginings, the rest of the album packs a diverse array of other styles, with country waltzes, bluegrass hoedowns, talkin’ blues and more all making appearances. Producer Joel Savoy and multi-instrumentalist Grant D’aubin ably guide the sonic palette from earthy realism to shimmering abstraction and back around again, stretching their arsenal of instruments into a sepia-toned kaleidoscope. Miraculously, however, the album finds a method to the madness of it all. The awful silence in the wake of a tearjerker like “Tulsa’s Last Magician” gets punctured with an uptempo romp like “Vanlife”, themes appear, disappear and reappear, the more experimental material is carefully parceled out amidst more traditionalist aesthetics. In the end, we’re left with not just a playlist of excellent songs, but a brilliant and cohesive album statement, all centered around the raw, chesty yowl of Carlisle himself.
For all its jaw-dropping craftsmanship, Peculiar, Missouri
is aimed at the heart, not at the mind. The first time I listened to it, I shed tears four separate times and laughed out loud twice— the proof is in the pudding! Here, Willi Carlisle gathers together the poorest and most desperate refugees of the “awkward, unsettling, fumbling epoch” we’re all trapped within and dares to suggest that, with love and compassion, they might be redeemed, might find a sense of belonging. Perhaps we all can. Todo pasa en este mundo