Brandi Carlile is a textbook singer’s singer — Adele is a fan — which is no reason the rest of us can’t buy in, too. Her sixth album reinforces the need to add songwriter’s songwriter to the list: Carlile can hit diva-esque heights but knows the devil is in her conversationally sung details.
The album’s lead single, “The Joke,” earns its aria-esque heights, recalling her magisterial signature hit “The Story” as it offers emotional shout-outs to bullying victims and immigrants. You don’t hear as much of the country influence there as you might be expecting from an album produced by the Nashville team of Dave Cobb (a hero nowadays for his work with Chris Stapleton) and Shooter Jennings. But wait for it; a hint, at least, of that musical twang is coming, in a collection that expertly skirts the fine line between rootsiness and pure, pre-“Americana” singer/songwriter finesse.
You can hardly consider it a complete roots move, anyway, when three of the 10 tracks climax with glorious orchestration — two of them in the hands of rock’s greatest string arranger, the late Paul Buckmaster, who added his final grace notes to a project that’s a worthy cap on a career most associated with early Elton. Come for the finger-picking intimacy, and stay for the symphonic swells, tastefully occasional as they are.
Unless it’s made of stone, your heart will swell along with the orchestra. Carlile’s voice can break your heart even before you get the gist of what she’s singing about. Her power as an empath comes out most in “The Joke,” which, as an anecdotal yet all-purpose empowerment anthem, comes with nothing less than the Barack Obama seal of approval, after having appeared on the former president’s end-of-2017 Spotify playlist. But she can also play it chilly, too, with as emotionally ambivalent a kiss-off song as “Whatever You Want.” It’s rare that a performer who’s inherently this capable of registering so much heart and soul can be such a cool cucumber when she wants to. Her lyrical and vocal reserve on so many of the tracks gives the moments of pure emotion that much more impact when they come.
“By the Way, I Forgive You” is the kind of album where, for the first four tracks, at least, you might be thinking to yourself, “No, this is the best track she’s ever done.” Track three in this instant greatest-hits playlist, “Hold Out Your Hand,” is a playful tour de force that moves back and forth between wordy-hillbilly verses and a rocking, anthemic chorus that would be the climactic highlight of any Mumford & Sons show, if they’d written it.
But that’s immediately succeeded, and superseded, by “The Mother,” a more autobiographical than usual number inspired by the transformative experience of having a 3-year-old daughter, and the losses as well as overcompensating gains that come with making that life change well into a career and/or lifestyle. It could come off as sentimental, but Carlile is too sharp to make her ode to being a mama anything less than both moving and wry: “The first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep/ She broke a thousand heirlooms I was never meant to keep/ She filled my life with color, cancelled plans and trashed my car/ But none of that was ever who we are.” There have surely been songs this fine about new parenthood in the last 20 years, but none come to mind.
And along with the new babies, there are plenty of past hurts still to explore and old scores to at least consider settling, as the album title would indicate. She’s an emotional completist, even if warmth inevitably comes to dominate even the coldest digs. Dig in to “By the Way…” and you might even forgive yourself, if you’re a latecomer, for not discovering Carlile sooner.