In Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You, I find redemption but not escape. The things we forget never leave us. We speak of separation from people as if pieces of them aren’t embedded in us, as if those pieces won’t be woken by the least of expectations. We’re wrong.
That we can care without wondering: That’s the trap Every Time I Hear That Song is about. We can choose to be aware—to keep memories of someone warm and never let go—or we can try to disentangle, only to be surprised by the intermittent remembrance of them. I hear that in “To know you’re still unhappy only makes it break again.”
The Joke’s a full-throated celebration of being exactly who we need to be. Even if unseen. Even if they tell us, “Your place is in the middle.” Because while the middle—by being neither first nor last, not best or worst—may be immemorable to some, our place need not be in their memories.
Brandi sings with the confidence of someone who’s survived: “I have been to the movies. I’ve seen how it ends.” It’s a message that implores us to believe that our shapes won’t be drawn by their hands. And that’s especially clear in the temporal status Brandi attaches to patriarchy with “Girl, it’s your brother’s world for a while longer.” “Let ‘em laugh while they can.”
What if there’s a limit to our loss—depths strife can’t reach? If “I’m a dying man, from the moment we began,” don’t you wanna dance? In Hold Out Your Hand, Brandi has us lifting each other up to solve the crimes we commit against each other. She also decries the way we accept the harms done unto others via what’s likely a Tamir Rice reference: “Well, he came to my door to sell me the fear: ‘Here, a license for killing your own native son for a careless mistake and a fake plastic gun.’” Because our collective faith could move mountains. And then would come the morning.
I’ll never be a mother, but I understand that your composition changes. I’m in awe of how vividly Brandi illustrates that change in The Mother. The clarity of “Broke a thousand heirlooms I was never meant to keep” resets everything we understand heirlooms to be. And “All the wonders I have seen, I will see a second time” works as the promise of a generation, of gaining a vision not your own, and of getting an opportunity unlike any others could.
Whatever You Do is about what it means to be fair (and unfair) to each other. Being together doesn’t require fit (“I don’t believe we’ve ever even met”), but neither does long-lasting connection. That’s why going our separate ways will always be incomplete. Intersecting paths can’t be parallel.
And yet we go. Brandi moves even while the past is chained around her ankles—or, rather, while it’s around one ankle and around the other is worry that the future’s more of the same: “There are reasons why a body stays in motion, but at the moment only demons come to mind.” And when she follows that line with, “There are days when I could walk into the ocean with no one else but you to leave behind,” the way her voice vibrates on “there” is incredible.
Fulton County Jane Doe lays a sample of Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth under the idea that we all were someone before we became whoever we are. It uses “The whole world’s gone crazy and there’s only god to blame” as an expression of loneliness and the inexplicability of the human condition. And its “When my heart has no rest, and a thousand things are on my mind...” reminds me of Anita’s Giving You the Best That I Got.
It’s a great setup for the hopelessness in Sugartooth, a story about never being able to get it right. “What in the hell are you going to do when the world has made its mind up about you?”
It’s not letting go if I’ve never really held it. That theme’s one part of Most of All. But it’s the way Brandi explores how we come to embody the people we’re attached to that hurts the most. “I haven’t seen my father in some time, but his face is always staring back at me. His heavy hands hang at the ends of my arms.” I have his habits but not his lessons—his cautionary tales but no parables.
Some things are easier to erase than evade. That’s the plot of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and track nine, Harder to Forgive. If I’m so aware of what my peace has cost me, where’s the line between that awareness being the contrast peace requires and being the shrapnel that never lets me forget the war?
Party of One is gorgeous. “The only other lonely soul in this place” is a striking way of revealing how loneliness is a thing it can’t be—how it mischaracterizes us, how we can share even our isolation. It’s nearly impossible not to ugly-cry when the “I am yours” refrain kicks in.
But before it does, in “I am tired; I am not my own” I feel burden beyond and within me. I feel the abject stress of trying to survive myself—my doubts, demons, and sabotage. The blame I displace. The comfort I estrange. It’s a song I wish I wrote.
February 16, 2018
Dave Cobb · Shooter Jennings
Brandi Carlile · Dave Cobb · Phil Hanseroth · Tim Hanseroth