By The Way, I Forgive You

Brandi Carlile

Elektra, 2019

http://www.brandicarlile.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/05/2019

Brandi Carlile is a dynamic, charismatic performer and strong, genre-bending songwriter whose best work is genuinely compelling. And my reaction to this album was distinctly lukewarm. What’s up with that?

Part of me wants to blame The Voice, a modestly entertaining show that seems to have convinced a generation of aspiring singers that they’ll never make it unless they can hit you over the head with that one big I’ll-see-your-Celine-Dion-and-raise-you-a-gospel-diva-with-a-megaphone chorus. And therein lies the problem: singing is not an athletic competition.

If you’re wondering what the above paragraph has to do with Brandi Carlile, you’ve never heard this album, which seems unlikely since (a) you’re reading this review, and (b) its hit single “The Joke” was one of the featured performances at the 2019 Grammys. I was duly impressed by the latter; the song’s message about not allowing the judgments of others to affect you is wonderful, the redemptive turnabout that happens in the chorus is clever and satisfying, and Carlile sang it with great passion and conviction.

The thing is, I assumed at the time that Carlile’s performance had been supersized a bit for the big stage she was playing on that particular night. But no; as By The Way, I Forgive You makes clear up front, supersize seems to be Carlile’s default mode of presentation, almost a crutch she leans on. You could describe her music as “Adele plays country-folk,” a powerhouse of a voice singing songs that sometimes feel out of proportion not because the songs are small, but because the performance is so big. This extends beyond Carlile herself to the arrangements, which in several cases add orchestral backing that feels extraneous, at times subtracting by addition. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Enough preview, though: let’s get into it. “Every Time I Hear That Song” starts things off in lovely fashion, all space and airiness, Dave Cobb’s exaggerated ’70s production lending echo to every note and snare hit. The song itself is terrific, a number about battling with regret, the power of memory, and how a familiar song can trigger both. “The Joke” follows, unfolding like a second-act Broadway number, just piano, a single violin and voice at first, adding elements and emotion steadily until by the fourth minute it’s a full-bleed cinemascope anthem, complete with a huge sustained note at the climax.

The opening of “Hold Out Your Hand” dials it back momentarily and offers a fresh look as Carlile speed-sings through a series of clever rhymes. Unfortunately, at the chorus she and Cobb abruptly hijack the song into a booming, over-the-top arrangement, bringing an exaggerated theatricality to her delivery that just keeps amping up until she’s shouting instead of singing. Carlile then promptly redeems this misstep with “The Mother.” The title is a bit precious, but the tune itself is outstanding, about the changes she’s been through since becoming a parent: “The first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep / She broke a thousand heirlooms I was never meant to keep.” Later on, she states her admirable priorities plainly: “They can keep their treasure and their ties to the machine / Because I am the mother of Evangeline.”

“Whatever You Do” unfolds as a beautiful acoustic ballad right up to the 3:05 mark, at which point they flood the song with an entire orchestra’s worth of strings as Carlile cries out wordless exclamations of anguish, blowing up the last minute of a tune that feels like it would have been stronger if they’d let it come to a more natural resolution. “Fulton County Jane Doe” is where it feels like this set begins to find its natural level, a lovely, heartfelt tune with chiming guitars and a welcome sense of restraint. The same is true for “Sugartooth” and “Most Of All,” well-crafted songs that lack oversized dramatics and are all the better for it.

Toward the end, the former tendencies return. “Harder To Forgive” is a message song that, for all its good intentions, can feel a bit heavy-handed. And “Party Of One” is a terrific number about a turbulent relationship that’s resilient nonetheless—for about 4:30. Then, just when the song should be wrapping up, the string section takes over and puts the song on a trajectory for the upper atmosphere with an extended outro that feels out of sync tonally, even for an album-closer.

What we’re left with in the end is an album of well-crafted songs, presented by a talented group of musicians and a powerhouse singer, that just feels overcooked in places. If By The Way, I Forgive You is Brandi Carlile with the dial turned up to 10, I’d love to hear her at about an eight.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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