Sitting in Ithaca Bakery getting ready to listen to By the Way, I Forgive You, I thought back to the first time I heard Brandi Carlile during an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Her song “The Story” was a major part of the musical episode in season seven and it’s been a constant in my Spotify throwback mixes since. I already associated her music with the faux cloudy Seattle of Grey’s, so I was ready to delve into the new album with my latte in hand. “The Story” showcases what folk singers and specifically Carlile do best: wrap a heartbreaking story in anthemic music. In her opening line (“All of these lines across my face / Tell you the story of who I am), Carlile makes something personal feel utterly universal.
Her folksy newest album, which was released on Feb. 16, reminds me of a combination of Joni Mitchell’s mastery of storytelling mixed with Dolly Parton’s simple but piercing melodies. The album is an amalgamation of bluegrass, gospel, and folk with each song featuring a little something different.
The first song off the album (“Every Time I Hear That Song”) is easily one of my favorites, featuring a catchy, folksy guitar-driven backtrack combing with easy-to-remember lyrics. These lines though simple are rich with lyrics such as “They told me the best revenge would be a life well lived.” The hints of vulnerability present throughout the rest of the album start here, making the lead single memorable.
A very different story is told on the second track, “The Joke”, which relies on a swelling string section and Carlile’s voice breaking on the chorus to drive the message home. The song reminds people who are struggling that in the end, the joke is on the people who do not understand them and to not let adversity break one’s spirit. This story driven song is the most listened to off the album on Spotify, which is understandable given the message and instrumentals.
“The Mother” describes changes brought on by motherhood with nods to the hardship and pride that goes with becoming a parent. One of the most incredible lines was “Oh, but all the wonders I have seen, I will see a second time / From inside of the ages through your eyes.” This song definitely transported me to another mindset and I sent it to my mom as soon as it finished; it made her tear up, which is a small testament to the song’s nuances. “The Mother” is musically mellow while describing one of the most complex and beautiful journeys in the world.
While the other songs on the album explored personal relationships or family relationships, “Sugartooth” broaches a darker and harder subject: death and addiction. This is the most complete story on the album and describes the journey of an unnamed southern man, tracking him from high school into adulthood. Carlile describes meeting him in high school while “he was searching for some kind of deeper truth / Between the lines and the Bible and living proof.” The song continues to delve deeper into the subject of addiction with prescription drugs and eventually suicide. One of the verses includes how he succumbed to his struggle with “After so many years of feeling the loss / He finally made his way back home.” The song concludes with his ashes scattered at “Jesus Rock,” showing he was finally reunited in some way with something he searched for his entire life. This song gives an honest look at the victims of addiction on an individual level, showing their struggles as people who yearn to not feel alone.
The album closes with “Party of One”, which describes finding another lonely soul and the sense of belonging that follows. She realizes that she has loved this person from the beginning but acknowledges the pain caused by her partner’s drinking.
As a fan of “The Story” and her previous albums, I was not disappointed in this 9th album. Singer-songwriters may not be the most popular, but this album reminded me that the best songs are often stories that impart understanding and deal with difficult topics such as addiction, loss, peace and love with true wisdom.
For those interested in hearing some of these new hits live, Brandi Carlile will be playing at The State Theater of Ithaca on May 8.
Ashley Davila is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected].