On 'In These Silent Days,' Brandi Carlile finds the beauty in the brokenness
In the prologue to her recently released memoir, Broken Horses, Brandi Carlile shares a crucial anecdote. She's in bed with her wife, Catherine, and the couple's two children, Evangeline and Elijah. The family is brainstorming names for Carlile's memoir, then still in progress, when Evangeline asks, "Mama, remember when you were poor, how could you afford horses?" It was a valid question, as Carlile's childhood poverty factors heavily both into her memoir and, accordingly, into the long, winding road she took from busking in Seattle to selling out shows across the globe. "I couldn't," Carlile answers her daughter. "I was given broken ones."
It's a fitting introduction both to the book, which chronicles Carlile's life, from her youth in rural Washington state through to the present day — which, given Carlile's Grammy wins and friendship with Elton John, has clearly changed considerably. More importantly, though, the story gets at what seems to be a guiding principle in Carlile's personal philosophy: always find the beauty in the brokenness.
On her new album, In These Silent Days, Carlile does just that. The album, her seventh, follows her highly acclaimed, Grammy-winning 2018 album, By The Way, I Forgive You, a release that catapulted Carlile from stardom within the nebulous Americana genre to household name territory, a feat aided, no doubt, by her jaw-dropping performance of By The Way track "The Joke" at the 2019 Grammy Awards.
Carlile has racked up an astounding number of accomplishments since she released that breakthrough album. She co-produced, alongside Shooter Jennings, Tanya Tucker's widely acclaimed 2019 comeback album While I'm Livin', which netted two Grammys at the 2020 ceremony — Tucker's first-ever wins after nearly a half-century of nominations. She's become close friends with and a collaborator of one of her foremost musical idols, Joni Mitchell. And, of course, she formed the country/Americana supergroup The Highwomen alongside Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires, whose 2019 self-titled debut landed on a number of annual best-of lists and sent joyous shockwaves through Nashville's traditionally male-dominated country music industry.
If Carlile felt pressure in making an album to follow that success, it isn't evident on In These Silent Days. Across an economical 10 tracks, Carlile sounds assured, content and, often, joyful, even when tackling difficult subjects, like embracing spirituality while rejecting the crimes of organized religion ("Sinners, Saints and Fools"), feeling like an outsider ("Letter To The Past") and navigating parenthood ("Mama Werewolf"). Sonically, the album is no doubt kin to its predecessor, as prominent harmony vocals, buoyant acoustic instrumentation and massive choruses abound.
As she has since her 2005 self-titled debut, Carlile wrote and recorded In These Silent Days with twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, her closest collaborators. They wrote the bulk of the album's material during COVID-19 lockdown, with the album's title nodding to that odd, specific quiet and isolation wrought by the ongoing pandemic. Fresh off writing that memoir, Carlile had plenty of material to chew on, much of which makes it onto the LP. While such circumstances could easily lend themselves to a dour affair, Carlile wrote, in press materials for the album, "There's plenty of reflection, but mostly it's a celebration." This is most evident sonically, as the album leans less on ballads than on arena-ready anthems, but also in the theme of redemption that runs through its lyrics. "Sure, I've been broken," Carlile seems to say, "But look how I managed to build back better."
Carlile also, once again, tapped Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings, who helmed By the Way, I Forgive You, to co-produce the album. It sounds like an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to making an album, but the brokenness is, of course, the point — Carlile is just fortunate to have found a team of collaborators with whom she feels safe letting — as another of her idols, the late Leonard Cohen, might put it — her light slip through the cracks wrought by her past.
Opening track "Right on Time" is a pitch-perfect piano ballad, showcasing not just Carlile's otherworldly vocal range but also her ability to write from a place of deep reflection and self-awareness. "I'm scared too, didn't mean to take it out on you / I know I always do, you're the strongest person in the room," she sings, admitting, presumably to her wife or a loved one from her past, that she knows her way around her own weak spots.
"You and Me On The Rock" is, on its surface, a heartwarming ode to domesticity, with gently strummed acoustic guitar and a mellifluous vocal reminiscent of Carlile's friend Mitchell. It's also an honest depiction of the dependence inherent to partnered life, particularly during difficult times, with Carlile singing, "Me out in my garden and you out on your walk is all the distance this poor girl can take without listening to you talk / I don't need their money, baby, just you and me on the rock."
"Stay Gentle" lands sonically somewhere between lullaby and standard, with bits of advice ("Keep the eyes of a child," "To find joy in the darkness is wise") that could be for Carlile's children but also soothed this listener after a year and a half of fear and uncertainty. "Mama Werewolf" is the other side of that song's coin, with Carlile reconciling her own familial trauma with her deep-seated desire to be a good parent.
Carlile wrote something of a companion song for her memoir in "Broken Horses," a true standout track on In These Silent Days. Sonically, the track is uncharacteristically loose for Carlile. Her complex, meticulously detailed folk-pop songs — with their unusual, meandering melodies and lush arrangements — at times border on orchestral. By contrast, "Broken Horses" is freewheeling and raw, reminding listeners that one piece of Carlile's multi-hyphenate artistry is that of a real-deal rock star.
At this point in her career, Carlile could easily leave the "broken horses" of her past behind. What makes her a singular artist, though, is her determination to stay connected to herself and her roots, warts and all. Carlile has long been one of our more vulnerable artists, but plumbing her past for her memoir revealed that her well of truth was deeper than we, and maybe even she, once knew. What a gift to us, then, that she not only shows us those depths, but reveals even greater heights in the end.
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