Artist: Brandi Carlile
Title: By the Way, I Forgive You
Genre: Singer-Songwriter Americana
Release Date: February 16, 2018
Length: 43 min.
Label: Low Country Sound/Elektra
Producers: Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings
Personnel: Brandi Carlile (Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals, Guitars, Piano), Phil Hanseroth (Backing Vocals, Banjo, Bass, Guitars, Keyboards), Tim Hanseroth (Backing Vocals, Bass, Guitars), Dave Cobb (Guitars, Percussion), Shooter Jennings (Keyboards, Organ, Pianos, Synthesizers), Josh Neumann (Cello), John Mark Painter (French Horn), Chris Powell (Drums, Percussion, Backing Vocals), Laura Rogers (Backing Vocals), Lydia Rogers (Backing Vocals), and Kristen Wilkinson (Viola)
By the Way, I Forgive You, the latest album from folk and country singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, is dark but not depressing and deeply personal but intensely relatable.
As usual for Carlile – this generation’s own Emmylou Harris of sorts – and the Hanseroth brothers with whom she’s been writing and performing for years, the songs here cover topics that could easily come across as trite or cliché but, usually, don’t. Instead, each track is at once deeply personal and broadly universal. They’re songs of faith and doubt. Good and evil. God and the Devil. Life and love. Love and loss. Prejudice and open arms. Anger and forgiveness. Growing up and getting old. They’re relatable stories and themes in illustrative song.
These things could be said of any Carlile album, but this one seems to be the most pronounced in that regard. It seems to me that all the material Carlile has released in the last thirteen years and five albums were only preparing her for the forty-three minutes of territory she explores here. Her brand of songwriting can really connect with a listener, and it connected with me, as much as in any of Carlile’s other albums, and – in moments – more.
That’s not to say By the Way is a flawless album. I love Carlile’s lyrical style. I always have, with its passionate communication and the occasional wry twist of words in a phrase. She chooses words that almost always hit home for me. The same is true for me here too, but she stretches herself a lot as well, and though I always admire people stretching themselves, there are times Carlile overextends a little. The same could be said for her endlessly ragged but alluring and freely soaring vocals, but I love almost all of those moments. Folk purists may find the tunes too pop-leaning and the production overwrought, and some critics find Carlile’s sincerity off-putting, but I do not find that.
Getting back to the positives, Carlile backs herself up once again with able instrumentalists, providing the lyrics and her ardent vocals a solid set of legs to stand upon. The instrumentation sounds both intimate and wide open. This is, of course, aided by steady-handed production from Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings. I’ve given praise to Cobb before, and I will again. He continues to produce some of the best country and folk country today, and this is, in my opinion, some of his best work, actually, for once, allowing a bit of openness and grandeur.
Diving into the songs, the album’s opener, “Every Time I Hear that Song,” reminds me of a bluegrass number, and it’s a sad yet insightful track. “The Joke,” By the Way‘s most successful single so far, is addressed to people who are struggling in their lives and not necessarily confident in where they currently are. Though it’s empowering in a real way, it is the closest the track listing gets to feeling cliché. Still, it is written, performed, and produced with enough conviction to overcome that cloud. “Hold Out Your Hand” is good, but its Avett Brothers-specific folk rock sound makes it slightly out-of-place, and its curse expletive sounds misplaced amidst the album’s messages. It morphs into a few different subgenres throughout its four minutes and contains lyrics about the temptation to sell your soul, to sell out, and the best way to resist that temptation: joining with others in resolve, even if you may have already given into temptation at other times.
Next up is one of the most beautiful odes to motherhood I’ve ever heard: “The Mother.” Carlile dedicated this song to her own daughter, and the lyrics themselves paint a breathtaking picture of the joys of being a mother, joys which are not adulterated by the associated struggles and pains nor corrupted by slight jealousies or momentary regrets. “Whatever You Do” is a thoughtful examination of forgiving someone unconditionally, even when that’s tough. “Fulton County Jane Doe” purposefully references Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and tells a tale of a girl running from something and lashing out, searching for something to blame, all the while loved more than she knows.
“Sugartooth” is Carlile thinking back on someone she knew, remembering them, looking at what happened to that person, and wondering why what happened to them happened and how it could have been prevented, yet not so much asking the questions, rather holding that individual up in remembrance. The lyrics feel especially relevant in recent days. “Most of All” is about love given away without guaranteed return, whether that be parental, romantic, or otherwise. “Harder to Forgive” deservedly challenges the easy-sounding, old adage of “forgive and forget.” “Party of One” seems, on the surface level, a pretty normal, longing, break-up number, except, for one, while it is that, it’s much more perceptive than you might think at first; and, for two, at the end, it turns into something different altogether and closes the album out wonderfully, as if giving closure to the preceding confused emotions and ponderings.
Ultimately, By the Way, I Forgive You is an album that sees Carlile and the Hanseroth brothers searching their souls and exploring the difficult sides of life and forgiveness. The lyrics obviously aren’t all from Carlile’s point of view, but they certainly feel informed by her personal experiences. This is an album with points of view of people who have been through pain and are trying to sort through that pain, and though they have come to, or come close to, the point of forgiveness, they haven’t yet reached a place of true personal resolution, though they are approaching it.
I’m going to give Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You an 89%. I don’t like it quite as much as her restlessly rocking Firewatcher’s Daughter from 2015, but By the Way is a definite standout in Carlile’s discography.
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