Never one to rush an album, singer/songwriter Hayes Carll was good for a new release every three years following his 2002 debut, Flowers & Liquor. Carll could have been excused for rushing the follow up to KMAG YOYO & Other American Stories — his 2011 album that served as a critical benchmark and only release to chart — yet he chose to extend rather than shorten the waiting period by two years. Sidelined by events such as a divorce, a new love and simply taking time off to reassess life itself, the jocular musical descendant of Texans Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark, Carll returns a bit wiser and in a pensive mood on Lovers and Leavers.
Going from clown prince of the roadhouse responsible for such songs as “Naked Checkers”, “Little Rock”, “She Left Me for Jesus” and “Stomp and Holler” to front porch bard requires wisdom and guts. The man who once covered Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” has done just that. Already deemed a poet by Rodney Crowell, the first hint of Carll’s newfound profundity is “Drive”, the nimble acoustic opener that invokes Robert Frost and his “promises to keep”. While the circumstances that marked the last half-decade could have provided fertile song fodder, Carll chose instead to leave such country tropes unturned. With a deft artistic touch, the affecting “The Love That We Need” and its domestic tranquility flips tradition, detailing matrimonial rituals that over time have become rote actions devoid of sincerity: “We go out walking / But we don’t talk much / We lie down together / But our hearts never touch.” A counterpoint to those jaded by age, “The Magic Kid” who has “Never stopped the show / For fear or doubt / Like the rest of us did” serves as a moment of clarity, with Carll’s fearless son a reminder of innocence and freedom lost along the way.
Perhaps addressing criticism of his co-opting “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for the title track of KMAG YOYO, Carll bluntly states in press notes of Lovers and Leavers that “it’s not my Blood on the Tracks“, Dylan’s famed breakup record. While such an inward turn five albums into a career could easily prove mawkish, those involved with co-writing the ten songs on Lovers and Leavers — including Jim Lauderdale (“Drive”), Will Hoge (“Good While It Lasted”), Scott Nolan (“You Leave Alone”), Ruston Kelly (“Love Is So Easy”) and J.D. Souther (“Jealous Moon”) — keep Carll between the lines. Having lost a wife, Carll has gained a new love and musical partner in Allison Moorer, who, with Jack Ingram, has a writing credit on “The Love That We Need”. As if singing to Moorer on the forward-looking “Love Don’t Let Me Down”, Carll pleads, “I’m a good man, a loving man / Who just needs someone to hold / I can see it in your face / Your love can fill up this empty space / And the years up ahead don’t have to feel so damn alone.”
Stripped of any prior barroom antics, Joe Henry’s no-frills production keeps the focus on Carll’s urbane lyrics. An acoustic album, Henry sprinkles in percussion, piano and pedal steel sparingly, save for the Waitsian sendup “Sake of the Song” — one of three songs written with Darrell Scott — a brooding homage to craftsmanship that doubles as a pointed critique of style over substance. Personal and plain, Lovers and Leavers is music as catharsis well worth the wait, with Carll urging all to “Tell your truth however you choose / And do it all for the sake of the song.” Spoken like a true poet.