Every album constitutes a herculean undertaking by all the parties involved, from the amount of decisions to be made, the various directions the production and arrangement can go, let alone writing and selecting the right songs, finding the right players and studio, and then trying to hunt down a label that’s willing to release it. But the road to Hayes Carll’s Lovers and Leavers—his first record in over five years—feels especially long and winding.
Previously signed to Lost Highway Records—the “alternative” imprint of Universal Music Group Nashville—Hayes Carll was one of the most promising up-and-coming songwriters in all of American music in the mid oughts. His album Trouble in Mind in 2008 had people drawing comparisons to Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker, and had Hayes winning awards from the Americana Music Association and others. At the same time Carll was also cataloged as Texas country by some thanks to his roots in the Houston suburb of the Woodlands. Off the strength of his songs, Hayes could be all things to all roots music people, and be claimed by a few different tribes. He was folk, he was roots rock, and he was country. And Hayes had a swaying, reckless, booze-stained way of writing that was well beyond his years, and something missing in the polish of the mainstream, or the more refined material of Americana.
Then on his 2011 album KMAG YOYO, maybe the wheels began to wobble a little too much. The album was still well received, yet the reckless abandon felt more like what happens when an artist starts to become a caricature of themselves as opposed to the authentic extension of their personality exposed through songwriting. Carll had perfected this drunken, hiccuppy singing style that seemed more show, and his choice to write the music to the album and then match up words to it seemed all backwards from an acclaimed songwriter. Hayes had become an artist of ironic sweaters and campy lyrics. The wit was still there, but the graceful moments of depth in depression and songwriting seemed fleeting.
None of this stopped KMAG YOYO from becoming Carll’s best-selling album to date or receiving praise, but it also planted the seeds to what would become his longest drought of productivity in the studio, along with the natural introspection and lifestyle changes that accompany an individual heading towards 40. He had a divorce in his past, a son starting to get older, and began dating Steve Earle’s ex Allison Moorer. Perhaps life got in the way of music for a little while. And the idea of portraying the stumbling, tragic drunk slowly seeped out of Carll’s blood.
The first announcement that Hayes Carll had signed to Thirty Tigers happened nearly two years ago. This in itself was welcome news to fans who already felt the time had come for a new Hayes Carll music. But another year went by, and still no album, and you started to get the sense that perhaps Carll was getting into his own head a little bit and overthinking it, sort of like the same state of mind some surmise Jamey Johnson may be suffering from at the moment, where you get out of your groove and stay out of it so long you start doubting yourself, or lose touch with your sound. Hayes Carll’s abilities as a songwriter had already been tested and proven, he just needed to believe in himself again, get in the studio, and bang it out.
In these cases, perhaps one of the best ways to get back in the groove is to just strip it all down to the song, so you don’t have to sweat about what the lead guitar is going to sound like, or if that drum fill is too much between the chorus and the bridge. And that’s what you get with Lovers and Leavers. If the comparisons to Townes Van Zandt hold any water, then stripping back Carll’s sound would be not just the safest, but probably the most effective way to present his new material to the world.
Lovers and Leavers finds Hayes less in the character of some self-loathing drunk and disorderly, and more in the pattern of self-reflection and the introspective songwriting of a seasoned writer who can take simple observations and turn them into poetry. “Stripped-down” is not just an adjective in this case, these songs are nearly butt naked. A little bit of percussion and bass, maybe some lead parts sprinkled here and there, and a few louder songs. But overall this is a minimalist effort, and there’s nothing keeping you from reflecting on the words to Carll’s songs.
Instead of foggy recollections of wild rendezvous, or declaring fait accompli to personal failings, Hayes Carll is singing about looking for true love, about giving up bad habits you never though you would, and a song called “Magic Kid” about his now 12-year-old son. So many times in music, especially with songwriters, they get the idea they must suffer to create great art, like Van Gogh cutting off his ear, or Van Zandt and Hank Williams dying tragically on New Years. But the best songwriters can find their feet no matter what their state of sobriety, and some thrive in the clear-eyed environment.
Lovers and Leavers is not a “coming clean” record, but it is certainly Hayes maturing into a seasoned songwriter. Consider this a folk rock record without the rock, so you have folk rock songs, but without the heavy sound. It’s country in cousin form, though there is a decidedly Western song with steel guitar called “My Friends” that once again touches on the theme of growing up, but in a world where your old running buddies don’t want you to. Sound wise, Lovers and Leavers could be accused of being almost a little too light and stripped down for ten songs, where some will find their attention failing. One or two old school Hayes Carll rockers may have helped keep the pulse beating a little bit better, but it also may have disrupted the mood and theme this record looks to capture.
Just like leaving your drinking buddies behind, it’s not always the most popular decision, but for Hayes and his music, it was the right one. Only one song will truly remind you of old Hayes—“Love Is So Easy.” Otherwise, it’s a new day. But six years have passed, and six important ones. Humans either spend their lives being stuck in “glory days” mode never evolving beyond their high school or college selves, or they’re in a constant cycle of improvement, no matter where the baseline starts. Though the former can be quite fun, it can leave the spirit unfulfilled. Hayes has moved on, and so has his music. And the true friends are the ones who don’t resent you for maturing or try to enable your backsliding tendencies, but take that journey forward with you.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up (7.5 of 10)
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