I’m not a big fan of humor in my music. If a song doesn’t make me sadder than I was four minutes ago, it’s probably not going to immediately click with me. Because of this, I’ve nearly missed out on some great stuff. When Jason Isbell released a new album in 2013, the first song I heard was “Super 8,” and I almost immediately dismissed Southeastern as a whole. Now, of course, it’s my favorite album of the millennium, and I adore “Super 8,” but I was late to that particular party, which is a large reason I missed seeing Isbell on that tour, a shameful disgrace that I’ll have to live with. Point being – even through this musical blind spot that I have, Hayes Carll, with gems like “She Left Me For Jesus” and “Another LIke You,” has long been a favorite. He has a rare ability to blend deft humor with deeper insight. His 2016 album, Lovers and Leavers, found Carll in the middle of a divorce, a little more somber and a little less in the mood for funny. His new release, What It Is, has him in a happier, more accepting place, but still with plenty to say.
If an Americana album has ever had anything approaching a mantra, it can be found on the album’s first track, “None’Ya”, where Carll sings, “I try because I want to.” It’s a song about embracing the quirks in the person you love. The idea of enjoying the small things and staying present is found many places in the album. “Be There” asks an itinerant lover to stay, in place and in the moment, even though her past indicates otherwise – “You look like a tragedy/That just hasn’t happened yet.” “Beautiful Thing” fondly recalls snapshot moments from an early date – “A summer thunderstorm we had to run and hide/An empty phone booth tangled up and stopping time” – that turns into a happy romance – “Then came the 12th of May it was a big affair/You wore the perfect dress everyone we loved was there.” That these three songs were co-written with Allison Moorer, Carll’s romantic partner, is quite telling.
The musical arrangements on What It Is are complex and, on occasion, almost lush compared to Carll’s previous work. “Be There” and “Fragile Men” feature string sections, “Jesus and Elvis” has horns, and is that a flute on “I Will Stay”? But, despite the warmth both lyrical and instrumental, his sharp sense of humor is still present. “Wild Pointy Finger” is Carll’s look at the blame game, portraying the type of person all too eager to point out the mistakes of others while reminding us that, “You’ll just be disappointed if you’re waiting round to see/Cause my wild pointy finger’s never pointing back at me.” And the album is littered with incomparable quick-hitters: “Why some men do their damndest when half a damn would do,” “So if you need a shot of Dickel or redemption,” “The boys were emptying their glasses as the true believers will.” Few writers can spit these out like Carll so often does.
What It Is turns out to be Carll’s most overtly political album, too. “Times LIke These” asks, “Do I really need a billionaire/Just taking up my time tryin’ to tell me how he’s treated unfair.” And “Fragile Men” is a snide retort to those hostile to change: “They’re debating all your history/Unraveling all the mystery/And that just isn’t fair.” But Carll’s albums have always has an element of surprising sweetness to them (check out “The Magic Kid” and “Chances Are”), and the last track, “I Will Stay”, reinforces the message that both presence and patience are required to make a relationship endure:
Now the summer sun is fading and the autumn’s in the hall
And if time would just stop moving it wouldn’t bother you at all
But your story isn’t finished you’ve got so much more to say
And I can’t wait
So I will stay
I will stay
What It Is was produced by Brad Jones and Allison Moorer, engineered and mixed by Brad Jones (assistant engineer, Boone Wallace), recorded at Alex the Great in Nashville and mastered by Jim Demain at Yes Master. Chipping in songwriting chores are Adam Landry, Charlie Mars, Matraca Berg, Adam Landry and Lolo. Contributing musicians included Jones (bass), Moorer (background vocals), Jon Radford (drums), Joe McMahan (guitars), Gabe Dixon (piano, organ, vibes), Dan Cohen (guitars, saw), Fats Kaplin (fiddle, mandolin, banjo, pedal steel), Will Kimbrough (guitars), Buddy Woodward (guitars, banjo, mandolin), Derek Mixon (drums), Chris Carmichael (strings), Jamison Sevits (horns) and Bobby Bare, Jr. (background vocals).