When I reviewed the project Cover Stories last year I was completely unfamiliar with Brandi Carlile’s music, so it was kind of strange that my first experience of her songs was hearing other people sing them. When her new album was announced I was immediately intrigued, especially as she was working with Dave Cobb, who has produced some of my favourite albums of the last few years and the legendary Shooter Jennings. While I admired the initial single The Joke I wasn’t immediately sold on her more orchestral based sound, so I held off listening to this album for a while. Well that was a stupid idea since By The Way I Forgive You is one of the best releases of the year so far.
Before I begin, I think it’s important to mention how irritated I have been with some of the critical responses to this album. The ridiculously pretentious Spin magazine review used the phrase ‘diva theatrics’ claiming Carlile was ‘overly melodramatic’; Pitchfork’s review called the album ‘overwrought’ (a word also used to describe the new one from Courtney Marie Andrews in Uncut Magazine). To me these words are gendered, nothing more than thinly veiled ways to insult the female voice. How many male musicians are ever described using language like this? Maybe these male critics should ask why women expressing extreme emotion in their music makes them so uncomfortable.
Yes it is true this album doesn’t hold back from the cathartic expression of feeling, but fucking hell if you don’t listen to music to hear someone bare their inner soul in the hope you might feel something in return then you’re doing it wrong. The opening title track By the Way I Forgive You goes directly to the cause of her pain, acknowledging the hurt of a past relationship and finally letting it go – releasing her demons into song. Music she shared with her ex-lover hurts to listen to but hearing that song prompts her to finally forgive them.
Forgiveness is not easy dished out either, especially when you’ve been betrayed or bullied like the kids she sings about on The Joke. That’s what makes the gift all the more significant. This song shines light on how cruel taunts can make life hell for the victims. Orchestral swells and haunting vocal reaches emphasise the suffering endured by many. The power and strength of the message really hits home – hey even Barack Obama’s a fan of this song. It might take a few listens to adjust to the new and more elaborate musical style but the payoff is worth it.
The highlight of this album for me is Hold Out Your Hand and I’m not ashamed to admit that I have both danced and wept along with the frenetic overflow of feeling in the song. It’s surely impossible to listen to this without raising your hands to the sky in a expression of glorious joy. So yell along with her and maybe we can even stomp some of the hate out of the world at the same time.
Honest appraisals of parenting have been the themes of some great records recently including ones by Sturgill Simpson and Alela Diane, so it’s nice to see Brandi sing about her own experiences here on the The Mother. A simple, direct acoustic song that cherishes the changes her daughter has brought to her life, looking into her eyes and declaring a new identity: I am the mother of Evangeline. Similarly Fulton County Jane Doe feels like the kind of song only a mother could write, sympathising with a nameless murder victim. Here she returns to a rich country rock sound and it does feel like her natural home, even if the experimentation elsewhere is to be applauded. Most of All contemplates the relationship she has with her own parents and is one of the most affecting vocal performances on the album. Give away your love, she selflessly reminds herself.
Sugartooth is a sympathetic story song about a man’s struggle with addiction. Thankfully this never lapses into mawkishness or sentimentalising. When she sings ‘if you haven’t been there you don’t know the pain’ and ‘what in the hell are you going to do when the world has made its mind up about you?’ you feel the truth of how society condemns those less fortunate to a life of misery. What else can you do but sing these stories and try to understand another’s suffering? Such deep empathy is everywhere on these songs.
The closer Party of One starts off as a piano ballad, and you can see why Adele has covered Brandi in the past. Then the orchestral arrangements by late Paul Buckmaster swell, turning the song into something truly breathtaking. ‘I am yours, I am yours, I am yours’, she declares, opening her heart and letting the symphony sweep us off our feet for the final time.
By The Way, I Forgive You is a juggernaut of a record, hurtling straight for the gut. Carlile has produced an enthralling and exhilarating album which will be hard to forget.