Brandi Carlile is the unsung hero of modern Americana music. Since releasing her eponymous debut album in 2005, Carlile has established herself as a critically-acclaimed veteran of the scene. She has built a sizable and devoted following but, puzzlingly, has yet to attain the household name status that acts like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers reached during the 21st century indie folk boom.
Carlile is a definitive songwriters’ songwriter, with songs that communicate a compassionate wisdom that many artists covet, but few achieve. Her delicate melodies and thoughtful writing have earned the respect of musical giants such as Adele, Pearl Jam and Dolly Parton; each covered one of Carlile’s songs for Cover Stories, a 2017 project celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Story, Carlile’s breakthrough album. By far the biggest name involved, however, was former U.S. President Barack Obama, who provided the album’s foreword. “Brandi Carlile tells stories that encourage us to see ourselves in one another,” Obama wrote. “She reminds us that, together, we can build for our children a more just, peaceful world.”
It is difficult to describe the insight that Carlile’s music provides to listeners. The Boston Globe suggested it might be “emotional intelligence” or “thoughtful clarity.” Either way, a Carlile album leaves listeners with a sense of enlightenment, imparted through a uniquely captivating voice that is vulnerable yet commanding – raw yet powerful. The Globe called it “the most arresting female voice in pop this side of Adele.”
Released Feb. 16, By the Way, I Forgive You might be the record that gets Carlile the popular attention that the quality of her work demands. On her sixth studio album, she teamed up with star Nashville producers Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings, and the result is a sensational achievement. Contrasting with the vibrant and energetic sound of 2015’s The Firewatcher’s Daughter, which earned Carlile her first Grammy nomination, this new album is more tender in tone. Save for a few playful numbers, it is more solemn than her previous work, grappling seriously with the difficult concepts of forgiveness and empathy. Her characters are often individuals ostracized by society, but through emotive storytelling, Carlile illuminates the universal humanity that exists in all people.
In the album’s marketing campaign, Carlile posted an open letter on Facebook to her Baptist minister. When Carlile was 15, he refused to baptize her because she was gay, embarrassing her in front of her family and friends. Carlile forgave him in the letter. Yet Carlile’s forgiveness is not of the shallow variety that seeks escape rather than understanding. Her concept is more radical, stemming from a fundamental respect for all people’s inherent humanity and – as she discussed in a Rolling Stone interview – an acceptance that “life is hard.”
Twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Carlile’s bandmates, provide flawless harmonies and alluring instrumentation throughout the album. Tim’s fingerstyle guitar serves as the backbone for the album’s opener, “Every Time I Hear that Song.” The song’s speaker, who has been wronged by a former lover, forgives him for how he hurt her. Carlile drastically alters the narrative of the archetypal breakup song; despite the distress her ex-lover caused her in the past, the speaker does not wish for him to be miserable. Carlile sings, “Now that’s twice you broke my heart now, the first was way back when/ And to know you’re still unhappy only makes it break again.”
In “The Joke,” Carlile’s voice soars above a haunting orchestral arrangement. The lead single is an anthem for victims of alienation and bullying, and Carlile uses the fragile breaks of her voice to maximize its emotional impact. She decries such issues as the U.S. political climate and the European migrant crisis, sending a message of solidarity to those who feel “underrepresented, unloved or illegal.” The string arrangements by late conductor Paul Buckmaster contribute to the song’s elegiac quality.
“The Mother” delightfully explores the challenges of parenthood while affirming Carlile’s newfound sense of meaning after the birth of her 3-year-old daughter, Evangeline. Carlile acknowledges the sleeplessness and canceled plans that come with motherhood, but she is happy to make the necessary sacrifices for her daughter. “Fulton County Jane Doe” is an ode to an unidentified murder victim in a middle-of-nowhere town. The speaker struggles with the fact that a woman once loved by a family is now anonymous, with no identifiers other than her sex and the location in which her body was found.
Carlile ventures into gospel-tinged rock with “Sugartooth,” one of her best tracks to date. The song takes an empathetic look at a cocaine addict who commits suicide. Carlile focuses on his brave struggle for meaning rather than the disease that brought his downfall: “It was hard to hide that his heart had scars/ He would stay up late talking to the stars … searching for some kind of deeper truth/ Between the lines and the Bible and living proof/ There’s no point now to judge him in vain/ If you haven’t been there, you don’t know the pain.” She then asks, “What in the world are you going to do when the world has made its mind up about you?” Carlile attributes this thoughtful outlook to her experience as a mother. “Above all lessons, becoming a parent has taught me that everyone is somebody’s baby,” she wrote on Facebook. “No one is ‘just a junkie.’”
She follows with “Most of All,” a heartwarming tribute to her own parents. The album closes with the piano ballad “Party of One,” where Carlile’s voice shows its tremendous versatility.
Each of Carlile’s albums has added a new element to her music, and By the Way, I Forgive You is no exception. She has likely crafted an early frontrunner to win next year’s Grammy for Best Americana Album. Carlile summed the record up well in a Feb. 14 interview with NPR; “It’s deep, and it’s about filthy, ugly, difficult, radical forgiveness, but it’s also fun,” she said. “It was really fun.”