The first time I saw Hayes Carll live was more than 10 years ago at a party at a BBQ joint hosted by the state of Texas. Carll sang his tunes about misfits, drunkards, and hard livin’ to a somewhat straight-laced crowd that featured Governor Rick Perry, who guffawed at the humor in Carll’s lyrics. Carll ignored the hypocrisy of Perry sympathizing with life’s losers. In fact, Carll avoided making eye contact with anyone in attendance. He didn’t seem squeamish as much as unsure about how exactly he should act.
Despite the impulsive decisions made by Carll’s characters, the Lone Star singer-songwriter has always acted deliberately and with forethought in terms of his music. During the past 17 years, he has only released five full-length albums including one on his own record label after refusing to sign with a noted indie record label back in 2005. His latest record, What It Is will be his sixth and reveals Carll’s methodical craftsmanship at creating songs that warily address the modern world. On the 12 self-penned and co-written songs here, Carll doesn’t take stands as much as wonder about what the hell is going on.
That is true of personal relationships as well as on political posturing. He opens the record thematically with the bouncy acoustic portrait of uncertainty as an aphrodisiac with “None’ya” (as in “None’ya business don’t you ask no more”). The first person narrator admits since he has become involved with a mysterious stranger, he no longer recognizes himself. However, while he may be lost, he wants to stay together because he enjoys not knowing who he becomes when he’s with the other person or who his new partner really is. When she tells him “None’ya”, Carll can only respond by declaring his inherent pleasure in the inscrutability of ever really understanding what causes two people to be attracted to each other.
Carll examines his annoyance at his own behavior on “Wild Pointy Finger” where he states that the world’s problems are caused by “anybody who thinks different than me”. He’s aware of his egotism and complicity in turning the world into us and thems. Carll does not offer any solutions except to note that the world would be a better place if we could find common ground. In “Times Like These” he sings, “I wish someone was on my side / Instead of bringing it together we’re just widening the great divide.” It’s a nice thought, if ambiguous. However, no matter what side one is one, just picking a side separates one from others. While Carll’s not explicitly political, his comments (i.e., “Do I really need a billionaire / Just taking up my time trying to tell me how he’s treated unfair”) reveal he’s talking about current problems.
Yet Carll’s analysis of the “American Dream” is based on nostalgia and old movies. “Nothing ever changes,” he laments, but he simultaneously decries the present for somehow being different. He can’t decide which is worse. That doesn’t stop him from talking about it. On “If I May Be So Bold”, he declares he’s intrepid enough to keep on telling his stories, even if he’s not sure what they mean. That’s a good thing as his tales of velvet paintings at a bar (“Jesus and Elvis”), breaking up (“Be There”), sexism in action (“Fragile Men”) and such reveal his talents at showing different perspectives. Offering the details without drawing conclusions requires the listener to judge.
The song and album “What It Is” tell us to look for our own answers. In John Lennon’s last interview before he was murdered, he reminded people of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, “Don’t follow leaders / Watch your parking meters.” In other words, don’t ask songwriters what to think. Look around you and make your own judgments. Carll adheres to this philosophy in his work.