Brandi Carlile, Larger Than Life and Achingly Human
The quarantine and isolation of 2020 didn’t subdue Brandi Carlile. Just the opposite. Her seventh album, “In These Silent Days,” braves the extremes of Carlile’s songwriting. She empathizes, apologizes and lays out accusations. She’s righteous and she’s self-doubting. She proffers fond lullabies and she unleashes full-throated screams. The album reaffirms her ambitions and polishes them, too.
The music Carlile makes with her songwriting partners and bandmates, Tim and Phil Hanseroth (on bass and guitar), harks back to the handmade sounds of 1970s rock. Songs on “In These Silent Days” pay clear tribute to Joni Mitchell (“You and Me on the Rock”) and the Who (“Broken Horses”). Yet Carlile is unmistakably a 21st-century figure: a gay married mother of two daughters who bypassed the country-music establishment to reach her own fervent audience.
From the beginning — Carlile released her debut album, “Brandi Carlile,” in 2005 — her gifts have been obvious. She writes melodies that gather drama as they unfold, carrying lyrics filled with compassion, close observation and sometimes heroic metaphors. Her voice can be limpid and confiding or fiercely torn as she strategically reveals its startling range. As early as 2007, with the title song of her second album, “The Story,” Carlile proved she could sound confessional while belting to the rafters. There was no denying her emotional power, even though at times, on her early albums, it shaded into melodrama.
“In These Silent Days” follows through on the long-deserved recognition that Carlile found with her 2018 album, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” and its flagship single, “The Joke,” a grandly crescendoing ballad that tells sensitive misfits that their time will come. It was nominated for the Grammy for song of the year in 2019, and Carlile’s showstopping prime-time performance introduced her to a new swath of fans.
Carlile chose to share the added attention. She collaborated on writing and producing a Grammy-winning comeback album, “While I’m Livin’,” for the country singer Tanya Tucker, and she formed an Americana alliance, the Highwomen, with Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires. She also performed the entirety of Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue” in Los Angeles, a concert she’ll bring to Carnegie Hall on Nov. 6.
When the pandemic curtailed her years of touring in 2020, Carlile completed her memoir, “Broken Horses,” and wrote songs with her band members in the compound they share in Washington state. They recorded the new album in Nashville with Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings, who had also produced “By the Way, I Forgive You.”
“In These Silent Days” consolidates Carlile’s strengths: musical, writerly, maternal, political. It opens with her latest ballad showpiece, “Right on Time,” which pleads for a reunion and a second chance: “You might be angry now — of course you are,” Carlile admits with breathy hesitation at the beginning, before the song starts its big climb in the chorus. “It wasn’t right, but it was right on time,” Carlile declares, rising to an operatic peak and, in the final iteration, leaping up from there, perfectly poised between personal heartache and stagy flamboyance. In a few seconds of sound, she makes herself both larger than life and achingly human.
“Broken Horses” doesn’t wait for its buildup. It’s an imagistic, nonlinear song full of defiance — “I’m a tried and weathered woman but I won’t be tried again,” Carlile vows — and from the start, Carlile’s voice is on the verge of breaking into a shriek, riding hard-strummed guitars and rumbling drums directly out of “Who’s Next.” There are moments of respite in paused, sustained harmonies, but Carlile is all scars and fury, as elemental as she has ever been.
She makes a more measured ascent in “Sinners, Saints and Fools,” with electric guitars and orchestral strings mustering behind her for a final surge. The song is a parable about legalism, fundamentalism and immigration; a “God-fearing man” declares “You can’t break the law” and turns away “desperate souls who washed up on the sand” undocumented, only to find himself turned away from heaven.
Carlile is equally telling in quieter songs. She sings to her children in “Stay Gentle,” a lilting compendium of advice — “To find joy in the darkness is wise/Although they will think you are naïve” — and, more moodily, in “Mama Werewolf,” which calls on them to hold her to account if she turns destructive: “Be the one, my silver bullet in the gun.”
She neatly twists a knife in “Throwing Good After Bad,” a stately, pensive but resentful piano ballad about being left behind by someone who would always be “Addicted to the rush, the chase, the new.” And in “When You’re Wrong,” she sings to an aging friend — “The creases on your forehead run like treads on a tire” — who’s trapped in a relationship that “pulls you down while you slowly waste your days.” In Carlile’s songs, she sees human flaws clearly and unsparingly, including her own. More often than not, her music finds ways to forgive.
“In These Silent Days”
(Low Country Sound/Elektra)