Album Review – Brandi Carlile’s “In These Silent Days”

photo: Neil Krug

We almost forgot what a stellar, generational talent Brandi Carlile is. Almost. Having to wait nearly four years since her last original studio record, and with her staying so busy with The Highwomen and stamping her name on projects for others as a producer, we were due for a reminder of just how spectacular her solo stuff can be, and just how powerful of a singer she is.

It takes seconds, not minutes into this new album for the brilliance of writing and the power of performance that Brandi Carlile boasts to be self-evident. Immediately an internal dialog commences in the listener on if Carlile is one of the best singers in the roots realm, for this generation or any other. Repeatedly the music delivers “moments” where your soul is stirred, and it reminds you why she has ascended to the summit in the roots discipline, and has stayed there now for some 15 years.

We didn’t know exactly what to expect from this new record. Unlike most albums in this era, In These Silent Days wasn’t preceded by half a dozen singles that wear out the new car smell of a record before you even drive it off the showroom. “Right On Time” was the only early track, which quickly reminded us what Brandi Carlile is capable of, but as a sort of torchy piano ballad, made us wonder if we should steel ourselves for a lounge record as opposed to something more rootsy, or for something else entirely.

In These Silent Days doesn’t really sit down in any sort of genre. It continues Carlile’s slow transition away from more country and roots material, though it still feels very authentic and grounded. Ultimately it’s one of those records where the strength of the material renders discussions on genre or style moot. Just call it “Americana” and move on.

Using her time off during the pandemic to compose a memoir allowed Carlile to reflect back on the gifts in her life, especially her partner Catherine Shepherd, who is sort of the unnamed protagonist of this album. Their two daughters also become the inspiration for songs. In These Silent Days is a strikingly personal work by Carlile, while each track imparts some wisdom that makes it resonate deeper that just Carlile’s personal universe.

“Right On Time” and “When You’re Wrong” remind you that love is never perfect. It’s far from it. But if it’s right, then it endures, and it takes work. Sometimes what is more important than being right, is being able to admit when you’re wrong, and express the vulnerability of needing to depend on someone else. “Mama Werewolf” is Brandi’s effort to explain her true nature to her children, while “Stay Gentle” is her trying to share a simple lesson with them—one that we all can benefit from hearing.

Where some used the pandemic as an excuse to release acoustic tracks, revisit old material, or labor upon some other unmemorable effort just to remain busy, Brandi Carlile used the time to refine what would come next as to avoid that mid-career album slump so many fall prey to. Penning and performing everything once again with her twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth, and working with Dave Cobb as producer, there was a familiarity and comfort level here here between all parties, and a philosophy to not fix what wasn’t broken. But there was also a focus to not be satisfied, to stay hungry and restless, and continue to push and challenge themselves.

Throughout the record, what’s perhaps most striking is how nearing two decades into her career, Brandi Carlile continues to find new contours, richer textures, interesting wrinkles, and higher reaches for her voice, and is able to write songs to both capture and highlight these capabilities. Maybe age and wear have even crept into her tonal quality to some extent. But instead of using this as an excuse to secede ground to a more austere approach to her singing, she embraces it like Emmylou Harris did, understanding that pushing a voice to the point where it fails is where the most intense emotion is captured, while Dave Cobb worked some audio magic with volumes and reverb to actualize some really incredible moments on this record with Carlile’s voice as the centerpiece.

Yes, the roots inflections on In These Silent Days are probably the least pronounced in Brandi Carlile’s career. And like so many “Americana” artists these days, simply mentioning her name will draw strong opinions from independent country fans who like to sniff around Americana as well, but aren’t always happy how outspoken the artists tend to be.

But this is not a political record. And unlike some other artists who may task you to look beyond their prickly personality traits and mood swings, at least Brandi Carlile is still delivering on the musical side. One of the few moments where Carlile broaches a subject beyond her own family orbit is on “Sinners, Saints, and Fools,” which is a well-written, and inspired expression on the continued immigration struggle in America. And as we’ve seen over the last few months, no specific political alignment owns the ire on this issue. They all do.

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Brandi Carlile’s producer efforts on Tanya Tucker’s comeback record While I’m Livin’ in 2019 were fine, but having Tanya record songs Brandi wrote for her instead of the best material to be found soured the experience for some. The Highwomen record was historic for many reasons, but Brandi’s specific decision to mix all the vocals in mono made for a less than ideal listening experience. Perhaps producing is not her strong suit. Of course, if Brandi Carlile merely coughs into a cued up mic, it’s liable to win three Grammy Awards, so who is to say?

But these side hustles are the stuff Brandi Carlile will also be remembered for. It’s her own music that has, and will continue shape her legacy. In These Silent Days is a strong, inspired, challenging, propulsive, and ultimately, convincing argument for Brandi Carlile continuing her role as the premier performer in modern Americana.

9/10

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