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Brandi Carlile Rejects Bitterness And Self Pity On 'By The Way, I Forgive You'


This is FRESH AIR. Six studio albums into her career, Brandi Carlile has a new one called "By The Way, I Forgive You." It was produced in Nashville by country music insiders Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings. Our rock critic Ken Tucker says the new album has a sound that's much closer to what Carlile does in concert.


BRANDI CARLILE: (Singing) A love song was playing on the radio. It made me kind of sad because it made me think of you. And I wonder how you're doing, but I wish I didn't care because I gave you all I had and got the worst of you.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Where on your list of priorities is forgiveness? For Brandi Carlile, it's pretty high up there. Her new album is called "By The Way, I Forgive You." It's a phrase taken from the song I just played "Every Time I Hear That Song," which is about the way music can jog your memory to recall things you sort of wish you could forget. Or if you're made of sterner stuff, as Carlile seems to be, it's music that can move you to take command of your unhappiness, to address the person who is the source of that unhappiness and forgive her or him.

The music Carlile makes on this album lends itself to the confessional tone. It's a combination of acoustic singer-songwriter melodies and more dramatic orchestrations. You can hear both modes in the shift between the intimate opening verse and the big booming chorus of "Hold Out Your Hand."


CARLILE: (Singing) I run a lot of miles of life and crime, of mountain climbs and quitting times, packing that load of lying rhymes and tired jokes and wooden dimes. I've been everybody's friend, everybody's friend.

I could lose my house. I could a steal a car. I can serve two masters, living hard - living like a dog in a cage in a yard with a fist full of cold hard cash that I can't let go. The devil can't have my soul. The devil can't get your soul. The devil can't get your soul.

Hold out your hand. Take hold of mine. And now round and round we go. Don't you want to dance? I'm a dying man from the moment we began. Hold out your hand.

TUCKER: This album was produced by Shooter Jennings and Dave Cobb. Cobb has gotten a lot of attention for producing cutting-edge country music acts like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. In the past, the production on Carlile's songs has tended to tame the passion she unleashes in concert where she's fearless about letting you hear the ragged edges of a sustained note if it helps to convey the right emotion. Cobb and Jennings were determined to capture more of Carlile's onstage fervor, and they succeed dramatically on "The Joke." This song, which is about being bullied and ridiculed, packs a big emotional punch.


CARLILE: (Singing) You're feeling nervous - aren't you boys? - with your quiet voice and impeccable style. Don't ever let them steal your joy and your gentle ways, to keep them from running wild. They can kick dirt in your face, dress you down and tell you that your place is in the middle when they hate the way you shine.

I see you tugging on your shirt, trying to hide inside of it and hide how much it hurts. Let them live while they can. Let them spin. Let them scatter in the wind. I have been to the movies. I've seen how it ends. And the joke's on them.

TUCKER: Carlile and her producers took a big chance with this album, risking florid melodrama. They hired the late Paul Buckmaster who arranged massive string sections for Elton John, David Bowie and Harry Nilsson. Buckmaster gives two tracks on this album a symphonic swell. But let's get back to the subject that started this review - forgiveness.


CARLILE: (Singing) I love the songs I hated when I was young because they take me back where I come from - when every broken heart seemed like the end, when everyone was someone different then.

But I can be alone in a crowded room where my thoughts they run like water down the floor. There are days where I will let the darkness rise. I don't always choose to stay on the sunny side.

Sometimes I pretend we never met because it's harder to forgive than to forget. Sometimes it's harder to forgive.

TUCKER: Brandi Carlile fills this album with songs about forgiving the pain inflicted by lovers, parents and other people in our lives. She's started a social media campaign with the hashtag #bythewayIforgiveyou inviting young people to share stories of forgiveness. She kicked off the campaign by saying that she forgives the pastor who refused to baptize her when she came out as a gay teenager years ago. Opting to reject bitterness, self-pity or revenge, Carlile's form of forgiveness in her music and in these real-life gestures carries a mighty strength.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Brandi Carlile's new album called "By The Way, I Forgive You." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like our interview with Tara Westover about growing up in a fundamentalist family in rural Idaho or with actor Richard Jenkins who's been nominated for an Oscar for his role in "The Shape Of Water," check out our podcast where you'll find those interviews and many more.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


CARLILE: (Singing) I haven't heard my mother's voice in a while, but her words are always falling out my mouth. My mind and spirit are at odds sometimes, and they fight like the North and the South. And I still care enough to bear the weight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.