It takes a particular kind of musical craftsman to be able to work within the confines of the country/pop/rock genre whilst simultaneously tweaking each new album to sound stylistically different without betraying the “rules” of the genre. Brandi Carlile has managed this sometimes impossibly difficult feat with her previous three efforts, even though her last, Give Up the Ghost, was just too dark and thick with hard-edged amelodic tendencies to really get behind. Her latest, Bear Creek is a light hearted auditory experience loaded with heavy content. Rife with sentiments of belonging and “coming-of-age”, Bear Creek manages to encapsulate the complexities of aging with the nostalgia and longing of, well, summer camp. Although this is never made explicit, there is an aura of regret and past introspection permeating throughout the album.
Bear Creek opens with the adorably accessible “Hard Way Home” where Carlile reminisces on the difficult chosen path she’s taken throughout her youth. On it she sings: “Oooh, follow my tracks / See all the times I should have turned back / Oooh, I wept alone / I know what it means to be on my own / Oooh, the things I have known / Looks like I’m taking the hard way home / Oooh, the seeds I’ve sown / Taking the hard way home.” A wonderfully light take on the sorrow trope—a welcome change from the sometimes difficult to swallow darkness of Carlile’s previous record Give Up The Ghost. From the siren of the camp grounds that rings out in “Hard Way Home” there is the sense that Brandi has made a deliberate choice to keep things light, without betraying her grassroots, and almost Tin Pan Alley mixed with some early gospel, style. She’s channeling early Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn on tracks like “Raise Hell”, or the endearing “Keep Your Heart Young”, while giving other tracks a more modern pop/rock twist, such as “Just Kids” or the album highlight “100”.
Bear Creek has all the gusto and playfulness that is reminiscent of youth with all the fears and 20/20 hindsight that comes with age. Nothing is taken too seriously that it breeches into muddled melodrama, but never once does Carlile belittle her source material—never does she oversimplify the intricacies that can course through many overly hormonal and confused youth. The entire album is a delicate journey of humility, love, and the lovelorn, of embarrassment and the desire to rise above your circumstances. Take, for instance, the beautifully written “100”, where she sings: “When I’m blowin’ out the candles / And when people start to sing / I will always cross my fingers tight / I remember everything / But I always make my wishes / For the same thing every time / If I live to be one hundred / If I ever it getting right.” Plagued by the vanity of youth, the track is a heartbreaking cry to be remembered and loved despite all the mistakes you’ve made.
It’s a wonder how such a young voice has managed to infuse such soul and depth into every line delivery. Take for instance the Fleetwood Mac inspired “Save Part of Yourself” where she sings: “I remember you and me / Lost and young dumb and free / Unaware of years to come / Just a whisper in the dark / On the pavement in the park / You taught me how to love someone / Save part of yourself for me / Won’t you save part of yourself for me”. With a quivering inflection in her voice and swelling orchestral strings, the break in the tune is heartbreaking just long enough to allow a rush of hand claps and “Oooo’s” from the chorus.
Carlile’s voice is second only to her astute songwriting, and on her latest record her powerhouse vocal chords are in top form—more mature and thick with experience and heartache. This is the kind of soul that Taylor Swift will never have. Carlile can show up her more mainstream country counterparts with a simple breeze through lines like “Whatever you see, that wasn’t me” from “That Wasn’t Me”, and “The hill I’m walkin’ up is gettin’ good and steep / But I’m still looking for a promise even I can’t keep” from “A Promise to Keep”.
Besides a few missteps—there could have been some trimming of tracks, and odd moments like “Raise Hell” stick out from an otherwise calming record—Bear Creek is another notch in this superbly talented singer’s catalogue. Although there may never be a mainstream Top 40 hit here, those who want to dig deeper than the typical artificiality will be greeted by some astute and often times touching tunes. Carlile knows how to draw on regret and sorrow without leaning on clichés that now sound empty and devoid of meaning. Bear Creek is a beautiful record that will steer you down memory lane.