One of the critical ingredients to the success of the current roots resurgence has been the presence of performers who are capable of taking what some consider outmoded or archaic forms of music, and making them relevant to the modern ear. Whether it’s Colter Wall and Western music, Charley Crockett and classic country, or Sierra Ferrell and Appalachian songs, their blazing talent has been key to keeping these music modes alive.
Willi Carlisle is one such character, making truly traditional folk, but in a manner that makes the music resonate with contemporary audiences. He does this by weaving stark emotional moments into his songs, along with cunning wit, humor, and a dash of old-time showmanship. Though he’d been around for years previous, a viral video for his song “Cheap Cocaine” and his 2022 album Peculiar, Missouri really placed him in the national narrative of today’s most vital roots music performers.
Carlisle’s new album Critterland presents a little bit more of a challenge when it comes to finding easy on-ramps for an audience. There’s no takeoff Telecaster and steel guitar like on the song “Vanlife” from his last album, or an obvious teary-eyed moment like with the SCM Song of the Year-nominated “Tulsa’s Last Magician.” There isn’t really any humor here either.
Critterland is a rather dark work, along with being a truly traditional folk record through and through. But patience with this album is rewarded with enveloping and involved writing presenting life lessons and valuable wisdom through rich storytelling and the exploration of character.
Some of these songs seem deeply personal to Carlisle like “The Arrangements” about burying one’s father despite not having the best relationship or respect for the man, or “When The Pills Wear Off” about the overdose death of a close personal friend, or the intense “I Want No Children.” Some of the songs are a bit more allegorical, like the compelling story of the birth of a “Two-Headed Lamb” who dies shortly thereafter.
Similar to his previous albums but perhaps even more so on Critterland, the instrumentation is true to folk traditions, meaning there is no drums and little electrification. An adept multi-instrumentalist himself, Carlisle’s accordion playing on “Two-Headed Lamb” as the only musical accompaniment is what takes the story to another level of intensity and immersion. Willi Carlisle’s ultimate gift is his capability to get you to lose yourself in a story.
The album arguably reaches its peak of storytelling when the instrumentation is stripped away entirely and Carlisle delivers the 7-minute spoken word masterpiece, “The Money Grows On Trees.” Willi might be a staunch folklorist with an old-timey vibe, but he knows how to broach topics fiercely relevant to today, especially drug issues and all the complexities they entail.
Critterland does take some warming up to, and some of the songs seem to strain to convey their meaning, including the title track. Though the song is said to be inspired by a commune in Arkansas, you can’t really glean that from the song itself, even if there are other things to take from the song, like Carlisle’s message of perseverance through adversity that often underpins his stories.
In it’s strongest moments, Critterland delivers those spellbinding moments that have ensconced Carlisle as one of the most compelling songwriters and storytellers of our era, taking the earnest, expressive, and sometimes fey delivery of original folk, and making it feel alive in the minds and hearts of listeners in a way that wells emotion like little else.
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