Brandi Carlile has long gone underappreciated. The Pacific Northwest artist was raised on country and folk, but over the course of six albums and a decade-plus career, she has taken detours into Elton John-like theatrics and crisp pop. She also has an understated way of writing from an adult perspective. On By the Way, I Forgive You, Carlile deviates from the folk-pop of recent albums and opts to contrast her delicate Americana with big, go-for-broke vocal moments.
Comfortable and somewhat domestic—the strongest cut here finds Carlile documenting the shifts in perspective brought on by motherhood—By the Way, I Forgive You comes built for mid-afternoon alone time. When work feels overwhelming, and a nap would prove too derailing, these songs will be there.
Music supervisors are already drawn to Carlile. Her work has regularly appeared on TV—heavily in “Grey’s Anatomy,” for instance—and heard in the 2013 romance Safe Haven. While her music sounds great in such mature settings, something with more edge would better suit her. Imagine a sequel to Lady Bird entirely from the mother’s perspective.
In a recent interview, Brandi Carlile noted she increasingly approaches every song as if it’s the last one she’ll ever sing. She isn’t kidding: Outside of Adele, there may not be another pop vocalist who can belt like Carlile. For evidence, cue up the second track, “The Joke,” a revenge dream for the culturally oppressed that builds to a gigantic finale with a piano giving way to strings and Carlile sweeping them along. Her vocals serve as the stuff of theater: Clear, patient, stern, and doubtlessly able to reach the balcony without a microphone.
The production, handled by Nashville pros Shooter Jennings and Dave Cobb, possesses an amber-like sheen—as if aiming to preserve Carlile’s voice in the most pristine condition possible. Such techniques fittingly serve the quieter, less-embellished songs. “The Mother” stands out as a work of beauty, with a soft and supportive acoustic guitar shining a spotlight on Carlile’s weary but proud vocals. “Welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind,” she sings, approaching motherhood with exhausted pragmatism rather than romantic idealism—a tactic that makes the song more tender and loving.
Her sympathetic approach to songwriting seeks to understand rather than judge. “Sugartooth” emphasizes an addict’s strongest traits while “Harder to Forgive” paints the tendency to run from mistakes as a tragedy. Occasionally, a lilting choir graces the arrangements. At other times, as on “Harder to Forgive,” a rhythmic trot and forcefully strummed acoustic guitar provide all the horsepower.
Several moments attempt to match the weight of Carlile’s voice and falter. Take the supersized orchestra punctuating the end of “The Joke” or the marching band-like ferociousness of “Hold Out Your Hand.” These occasions, despite being brief and fleeting, sound exhausting. But when Carlile serves up a composition such as “Most of All,” a spare number about reconciling with one’s parents, all is forgiven.
Elektra’s analog pressing also makes any minor faults quickly disappear. By the Way, I Forgive You is a big, beautiful-sounding album on vinyl, with Carlile’s massive voice occasionally coming across as if captured in a cathedral. Reverb, room echoes, the natural decay of notes, the dimensions of individual instruments, low-end extension—all here and rendered in riveting fashion. Kudos, too, to Atlantic for the thick gatefold sleeve and care that went into the highly textured packaging.
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