×

Album Review: Brandi Carlile’s ‘By the Way, I Forgive You’

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.

Album Review: Brandi Carlile's 'By the Way, I Forgive You'

More Music

  • New York's Brooklyn Bowl Celebrates 10

    New York's Brooklyn Bowl Celebrates 10 Years With Plans to Expand

    In the middle of a conversation about the tenth anniversary of Brooklyn Bowl — the live-music-and-bowling venue that opened a second location in Las Vegas in 2014 — owner Peter Shapiro casually mentions that he’s planning on opening a third location in the U.S. within the next 12 months. He declines to provide any more [...]

  • Rob Stringer

    Sony Unites Recorded Music and Publishing Under One Company

    Sony has created Sony Music Group, an umbrella for both its recorded-music operation — Sony Music Entertainment — and its publishing company — Sony/ATV — under SME chief Rob Stringer, according to an internal document obtained by Variety. The move will take effect on Aug. 1. A source close to the situation tells Variety that [...]

  • Spotify-Disney

    Spotify Pacts With Disney to Launch Hub With Music From Movies, TV Shows

    Fans of Disney movies and TV shows can now dive into a dedicated music hub on Spotify, featuring seven playlist sections with top hits from Disney animated favorites and music from Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars films. Disney’s No. 1 most-streamed song on Spotify is “Let It Go” from the “Frozen” soundtrack, followed by “Moana”’s [...]

  • Rapper Meek Mill arrives at a

    Meek Mill Moves Closer to New Trial — With Unlikely Support from the Philadelphia D.A.

    Before premiering his upcoming, Jay Z-produced Amazon series, “Free Meek,” on August 9, Philadelphia-based rapper Meek Mill had a far greater show to deal with. And one with twice the drama and character arcs. On Tuesday, Mill and his lawyers stood before three Pennsylvania Superior Court judges in a Philadelphia courtroom to ask that his [...]

  • R Kelly Sexual Assult Accusations Mugshot

    Woman Featured in Infamous R. Kelly Sex Tape Is Cooperating With Authorities

    The female minor featured with R. Kelly in the videotape at the center of his previous child-pornography charges, who declined to testify against him in 2008, is cooperating with federal investigators on new charges, her lawyer, Christopher L. Brown, told the New York Times. The tape, which was shown at Kelly’s 2008 child-pornography trial, allegedly [...]

  • Ken Ehrlich Jane Ortner Education Award,

    Grammy Awards Producer Shuffle: Ben Winston to Take Over From Ken Ehrlich in 2021

    As Variety reported in December, Ben Winston will take the reins of the Grammy Awards as executive producer in 2021 after longtime telecast leader Ken Ehrlich completes his 40th ceremony next year. Winston has become a prolific producer for CBS and other outlets since he moved to the U.S. nearly five years ago to launch [...]

  • Beyonce poses for photographers upon arrival

    Beyoncé Releases Music Video for 'Spirit,' Her 'Lion King' Soundtrack Contribution

    Beyoncé fans are stampeding across the web veldt to get a look at her just-released music video for “Spirit,” the original song she co-wrote and sang for the “Lion King” soundtrack. The track is also included on the companion album she executive-produced and will release Friday, “The Gift.” Clips from the computer-animated film are interspersed [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content