It’s been three-and-a-half years since Brandi Carlile’s sixth album, By the Way, I Forgive You, was released. In that time, the world has changed quite a bit, but Carlile herself hasn’t stopped. She gathered together some of her fellow country troubadours to form The Highwomen and release that supergroup’s debut album, she’s been doing livestreams in the absence of live performances due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and she’s even found time to do some tributes to her influences and peers as well.
That’s all to say that In These Silent Days, Carlile’s latest studio album, didn’t have any expectations that come with a younger artist needing to establish themselves. Carlile made the leap from underrated talent to superstar with aplomb, so there were no external time or relevancy pressures, at least not from fans. A new album would drop when she was good and ready to drop it. Just like the album’s first track, In These Silent Days doesn’t come rushed or over-laboured — it comes right on time.
The opening ballad is a hard trick to pull off on an album. Carlile usually goes with folky barnburners like ‘Wherever Is Your Heart’ on The Firewatcher’s Daughter or ‘Looking Out’ on Give Up the Ghost to jumpstart her LPs, and even when she slows it down, there’s still an underlying drive, like on ‘Every Time I Hear That Song’ on By the Way, I Forgive You. But ‘Right On Time’ is slow, deliberate, and emotional, daring you to flinch at the lack of flash or propulsive energy. It sets an appropriate mood for the forthcoming album, one that will hop genres and subvert expectations for fans and newbies alike.
The following track, ‘You & Me on the Rock’, is the most explicitly Joni Mitchell-inspired song that I’ve ever heard from Carlile. She’s a noted Joni fanatic, and she channels that early sound from Clouds and Ladies of the Canyon into her own slice of domestic bliss. The acoustic runs, densely packed verses, and vocal octave jumps are all quintessential Joni Mitchell, and it’s fun to hear Carlile give her own take on this style. ‘You & Me on the Rock’ is the lightest and breeziest cut from the LP, and Carlile sounds delighted to have her own ‘Carey’ or ‘Chelsea Morning’ in her discography.
‘This Time Tomorrow’ is a showcase for the two figures who owe as much to Carlile’s music as Carlile herself: Tim and Phil Hanseroth. “The Twins”, as Carlile affectionately refers to them, have been contributing to her songwriting and performances since the very start, and any time you see or hear a Brandi Carlile song, the Hanseroth’s have more than likely had a hand in its creation. The blend of the three musicians’ voices is gripping, and when you listen for it, they can be found adding shades of light and darkness to all of Carlile’s work.
‘Broken Horses’ is where the album gets its most country and its most rock. Carlile’s labelling as a country singer always baffled me, but in lieu of any more appropriate genre tags, it tends to stick. With a rollicking rhythm and honky-tonk piano soundtracking a tale of restless devils and palpable danger, Carlile lets her voice get more ferocious and wild as she cracks and belts with a powerful thrust. Whereas she’s comforting on most of the album’s tracks, here she’s spitting venom: “I will always taste the empathy but I won’t pass it down.” Carlile is a badass figure in real life, and I love the songs where she gets to prove it on record too.
‘Letter to the Past’ musically and thematically plays as a sort of spiritual sequel to ‘The Joke’, but its message of resilience in the face of adversity doesn’t quite hit as hard as it has on her past work. Carlile doesn’t cull any major insight, with “If the blind can lead the blind, then I’m just like you” being the most affecting line, but “You’re a stone wall in a world full of rubber bands” is a bit of a weak image to use as the emotional crux of the song. Maybe that’s a specific reference that Carlile felt a strong need to include for personal reasons, but to someone who doesn’t know its potential prior history or usage, it falls a bit flat, especially compared to some of the monolithic and damn-near revelatory lyrical turns that she’s capable of.
‘Mama Werewolf’ sounds like it would have been right at home on The Highwomen, taking a more explicit backwoods country-folk route, but it still works well here. In the songs where Carlile sounds like she’s talking to her children, she always toes the line between being a nurturing and caring maternal figure while being prepared to fight anything or anyone who might try to take that away (‘The Mother’ is a fantastic example). I have no idea what it’s like to be a LGBTQ+ parent, but I can’t imagine it’s easy by any means. ‘Mama Werewolf’ sounds like a window into that experience, one that can provide insight into the challenges and trials that come with always having to be ready to kick back out at a world that doesn’t accept you or the ones you love.
The album has reached its starkest and most stripped-down point on ‘When You’re Wrong’, which talks to a figure who has grown cold and removed from both the singer and the world. Backed by little more than a finger-picked acoustic guitar, Carlile is at her most cutting here. Just because this person is carrying a burden doesn’t mean they can lay that burden onto others, with a line like “you lay down every night next to a goddamn liar” being one of those signature gut-punching Carlile lyrics. Almost as if she realises how dark ‘When You’re Wrong’ is, Carlile follows it with a warm and heartfelt ode to compassion and understanding that seems to be referencing her children once again, ‘Stay Gentle’.
The most startling and haunting tool Carlile has at her disposal is the ability to turn her voice into a piercing emotional wail that cuts through straight to your soul. Carlile’s voice is versatile, one that can sing ballads, country tunes, and Soundgarden covers while still retaining its own unique features, but there’s a very specific scream she can achieve that gives me goosebumps every single time it comes out. You can hear it in the outro of ‘Whatever You Do’, cutting right through the swelling orchestra. She utilises that wail twice on In These Silent Days, on ‘When You’re Wrong’ and ‘Sinners, Saints, and Fools’; it’s powerful on the former and downright terrifying on the latter, but it never fails to impress me just how unhinged Carlile manages to get in these moments.
‘Sinners, Saints, and Fools’ is easily the album’s highlight, letting the grand ambitions and experimental tendencies reach their maximalist endpoints. Complete with cinematic orchestral strings, heavy dynamic shifts, and the album’s most specific storytelling, the song is the most dramatic and effective excursion that Carlile unleashes on the album. I don’t know who that is playing the rollicking piano, but they deserve major kudos. The brief bridge before the dueling piano and guitar solos, where the strings swell into a discordant frenzy as Carlile lets loose that frighteningly powerful scream, is the album’s most stirring moment. Just as the song reaches its climax, everything suddenly drops away, ending the song ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ style. To say it works is selling it short – it’s absolutely brilliant.
The album ends with one final ballad, ‘Throwing Good After Bad’, which feels slightly anticlimactic after ‘Sinners, Saints, and Fools’. The piano ballads only go so far on In These Silent Days, with the best one being right up front at the start and the other two fading into the background somewhat. They’re not bad by any means, but Carlile usually colours these kinds of songs with more cutting and precise lyricism. The lyrics on In These Silent Days don’t quite measure up to the incredibly high bar set on By the Way, I Forgive You, but Carlile’s (and the Hanseroths’) gift of storytelling hasn’t diminished in the slightest.
It’s hard to say what Brandi Carlile has to prove anymore. What drives someone who’s already made masterpieces, formed trailblazing bands, defied easy classifications, tirelessly advocated for noble causes, and built her own success by guiding her own destiny? Maybe it’s just about continuing to work hard and prove that you’re the best at what you do. If nothing else, In These Silent Days proves that Carlile is still one of the most vital voices in music, regardless of genre.