Brandi Carlile has been busy over the three-plus years since her previous album, By the Way, I Forgive You, became a commercial breakthrough and netted her mainstream recognition, including three Grammy wins. There was the debut album of the Highwomen, her country supergroup with Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris in the fall of 2019. She also performed Joni Mitchell‘s Blue in its entirety later that year with Mitchell in attendance. Over the lockdown of 2020, she completed her autobiography Broken Horses, which was published in 2021 April.
It makes sense that her new album runs through a tight ten songs in just under 40 minutes. It seems like Carlile didn’t have the time to do a sprawling double album vanity project, even if she was inclined. There are no filler tracks or wasted space on In These Silent Days, and each song stands almost entirely on its own stylistically.
There are two instances here where Carlile turns up the amps and unabashedly rocks out. “Broken Horses” begins with minor-key bass and strummed acoustic guitar chords, and Carlile comes in singing after about ten seconds. She starts at maximum intensity, her voice cracking as she shout-sings, “I wear my father’s leather on the inside of my skin / I’m a tried and weathered woman, but I won’t be tried again.” Pounding piano, drums, and a soaring electric guitar all come in after this opening couplet. For the next five minutes, the song pushes and pulls as Carlile backs off at certain points to let vocal harmonies take center stage, and it climaxes in a false ending. Then drummer Chris Powell gets right back at it, throwing in intense snare drum fills as the rest of the band returns, and Carlile is back to her full-on scream. It’s an impressive track for an artist who often lets her lyrics drive the intensity more than the volume.
The hard-hitting “Saints, Sinners, and Fools” is a parable about a man who hates refugees and immigrants. Unlike “Broken Horses”, it takes a little time to build up, but the opening sawing rhythm of the low strings section gives a preview of what’s to come. Carlile sings from the man’s perspective with the refrain, “The poor and huddled masses / Who are hungry and afraid / You gotta do it by the book and there’ll be / No exceptions made.” The strings return for a mid-song interlude, splitting time with a guitar solo. The second verse gets to the ironic moral of the story. The man dies without ever rethinking his position, and when he gets to heaven, the place is walled off and locked up. He’s told that he didn’t live his life by the Book and that he will not be allowed in. This is obviously a heavy-handed tale, but maybe subtlety doesn’t get the message across when it comes to something as basic as treating all people as fellow humans.
“Mama Werewolf” is an insistently rolling, minor-key country-rock track. The acoustic guitar riff and drumbeat cycle around and around while Carlile sings to her child from the conflicted viewpoint of the titular lycanthrope. It uses this heightened story to talk about parents who struggle with addiction and, often unintentionally, hurt their children. The refrain tips it: “If my good intentions go running wild / If I cause you pain / My own sweet child / Won’t you promise me you’ll be the one / My silver bullet in the gun.” The metaphor is a bit strained, but the song is rock solid.
On the lighter side, there’s the ’70s AM radio-style pop of “You and Me on the Rock”. It’s an unabashed love letter to Carlile’s wife. Sprightly acoustic guitar, warm piano, and lovely harmonies courtesy of the members of the band Lucius make the song a catchy, sunny earworm. The chorus is long but instantly memorable: “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.”
The folky “This Time Tomorrow” is a quiet, pretty song featuring acoustic guitar, occasional bass, and tight harmonies from Carlile’s longtime bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth. It’s both sad and comforting in its sentiment of appreciating what you have and remembering people fondly when they’re gone. “You know the breakin’ of the day might bring you sorrow / And I may not be around this time tomorrow / But I’ll always be with you.” Similarly, “Stay Gentle” is a 1950s-style lullaby with a broad vocal melody and thick, layered harmonies. With the vocals doing so much work, the arrangement is largely limited to a simple acoustic guitar riff.
The most intense of the acoustic tracks is “When You’re Wrong”, which is full of difficult, emotional lyrics. Carlile sings to a person she knows well, vacillating between empathy and anger that this person is involved with a significant other who is terrible for them. With the lyrical themes so knotty, the music is kept simple again, with a sparse guitar line leading the way and occasional accents from drums and bass.
The album opens and closes with piano ballads. “Right on Time” is just Carlile’s voice and piano for the first half of the track, giving full space for the beautiful melody and strong singing to be effective. In the second half, the instrumentation grows as drums, bass, electric guitar, and organ all join in. Producers Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings make sure the ensemble doesn’t overwhelm Carlile, though, and the piano and her voice stay at the forefront of the track the whole time.
“Throwing Good After Bad” finishes the record on a plaintive note. The track is essentially a letter to an ex (lover? Bandmate?) who left searching for something bigger. Carlile insists, “I’ll get over you / But you won’t be whole until you do / You won’t find what you had / Throwing good after bad.” Musically, this song stays much more muted than “Right on Time”, with only a cello showing up late in the track to add some extra emotion to the piano and vocals.
Carlile has been making high-quality music for years, and In These Silent Days adds to that legacy. The songwriting is so good throughout, and Cobb and Jennings’ production is spot-on. They know when to let a track stay sparse and put the lyrics and vocals in the center and when to expand the ensemble and emphasize the music. Carlile’s singing is in top-notch form, ranging from delicate to unhinged but almost always sounding gorgeous. Recently Carlile joined Kacey Musgraves and comedian Bo Burnham as a high-profile artist being miscategorized by the Grammy Awards for 2021 (apparently, a 20-year career in roots and Americana music has made her popular enough to qualify as a pop artist). Regardless of genre, though, this record deserves recognition as being one of the year’s best.