To borrow from Winston Churchill, another man known to be good with words, Hayes Carll has been a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma since he emerged on the scene in 2002.
He's a towering presence on stage who shrinks quietly into his own space the minute he steps off. He's soft-spoken in everyday conversations, but can rattle off blistering shotgun lyrics with a wit and cynicism that ultimately carved out his place in country music. When you expect him to zig, he usually zags.
But with Carll's fifth album Lovers and Leavers, the "drunken poet" from The Woodlands, Texas made it very evident that this would be a different record. For starters, he completed it on his own time, opting out of his contract with Lost Highway records. So much of Carll's prior work seemed to fit in a vacuum -- songs that unmistakably fit his casual, sometimes sardonic tone but also found a home just about wherever they landed. Like Grammy nominations lists, thanks to reinterpretations by Lee Ann Womack.
It's the mark of a masterful songwriter, but it doesn't mean it's what the songwriter as an artist always deserves. With Lovers and Leavers, these songs sound best being sung by Carll. They're inseparable from the man who admittedly wrote them when his life was going through a lot of changes.
His divorce, his son growing up, his successes, his disappointments. With Lovers and Leavers, it finally feels like Carll is delivering his heart, stripped bare without the shield of humor or cynicism. While phenomenal works, Carll's offerings up to this point kind of felt like the musical equivalent of a friend who deflects from serious conversations with a clever joke or turn of phrase. This album is the hard truth, the straight answer.
Most of it was written around "The Magic Kid," a song about Carll's now twelve-year old son. He wrote it with Darrell Scott (who has several cuts on the record), and by his own admission, it set the tone for the rest of the album. If it didn't feel like spiritual kin to that song, it didn't go on the record. It was a good litmus test, as "The Magic Kid," an ode to being yourself whether you get it right or not, is also one of the strongest points on the album.
On Lovers and Leavers, more than any other Hayes Carll album, Carll finds the sweet spot of being brutally honest and yet unapologetically stalwart. That lyrical gift is most apparent in songs like "Love Don't Let Me Down," where he sings:
"Under the sun, ain't nothing new/There's lovers and leavers and moments forgotten/And dreams that don't ever come true/And even though I'm afraid/I'm gonna stand my ground/If it's not asking too much/Love don't let me down"
Sung by a man whom love has clearly let down, it's a reflective moment that feels as endearing as the final fight scene in the first Rocky. If this man can carry on, you can too.
And while these songs are most at home in Carll's rough hands, there's no doubt several of them could find serious chart success if given the big box treatment. "The Love That We Need" is the epitome of Carll's deft lyrical touch pairing perfectly with the right melody. If matched with a voice like Womack's again, there's no telling how far it could go.
As you may expect with Carll taking such a personal approach to the record, the arrangements are much quieter and stripped than previous efforts. But don't confuse sparse with under-produced. Every part of this record feels perfectly placed, from light touches of keys to bongos to prominent shaker parts, this is a very, very produced record. It's just not overstated.
One of our first tastes of the album was a song called "Sake of the Song," one of those songs about writing songs that everybody warns against writing because they're worried only songwriters will care. It's filled with brilliant one-liners that Carll has become noted for, like "Less is less until more is more" and "his father bought the tour bus so he could strike out on his own."
It's a clever tune that only scratches the surface of how deep Carll eventually goes into his own story on the album. But it's clear he's ready to tell us when opens the song and sings:
"If you're nobody's business or you're front page news/Folk, rock, country or delta blues/Tell your truth however you choose/And do it all for the sake of the song"
On Lovers and Leavers, Carll decides to tell his truth how he chooses, and it's the best work he's done yet.