In These Silent Days (Warner)
Two years into the world turned upside down, we’ve had the records about loneliness and about hopefulness, about finding reasons within and fighting lack of reason without. There’s been death, renewal, anger and some feelings impossible to explain but impossible to avoid.
Yes, if it’s not already a cliché, it can’t be too long until it happens that some of us start talking dismissively of “the meaningful covid album” amid a yearning for something offering escape.
But so what? There is still so much more to say – and so much more pandemic living to be had – about what this has done to us and what we have done to ourselves. Beginning with In These Silent Days.
This is an album whose foundation is the myriad connections we make and we need. An album that doesn’t judge those connections, let alone rate them in some hierarchy, but begins with the notion that to need is to live, and then asks how?
There are songs addressed to her children about one day losing their parents, and about how they may be the chance to correct errors in the blood; about the lingering presence (for good and ill) of ancestors in our defiance, anger and choices, and how emotional fragility can travel through generations; about people we lean on and who may in turn need us when “the cracks appear”, while still seeing the limitations when help is rejected or wrong has been done, and separation is not just appropriate but the only sensible move.
It is also peppered with faith and the terminology of religion – there are more mentions of Babylon in the first three songs than you’ll find in the average trad reggae album – while not holding back from the hypocrisy and blunt force cruelty of some faithful. (And if the presence of religion in the life of a woman whose sexuality was judged and punished in the faith of her upbringing surprises you, as Carlile explained to me just before the world flipped, there is more to the story than prejudice.)
Carlile’s intellectual and emotional acuity in these lyrics is something to behold: she is more than a match for these times. But those qualities are mirrored in the songs she has written with her long-time collaborators, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, that speak of their confidence to straddle, or not be saddled by, genre, and their ability to land every punch.
In These Silent Days is deeply rooted in the 1970s, particularly in the elegance and empathy of Joni Mitchell and Elton John, with intimate songs built around piano and vibrant tunes studded with hooks. The measured sparseness of Letter To The Past which leans into soul, and the Blue-related Throwing Good After Bad, that holds you so close you can feel its breath, play at one end; the acoustic jauntiness of You And Me On The Rock, which dances out of Laurel Canyon, and the bruised pop of Right On Time, that goes right to the edge of grandeur, are at the other.
To that you can add some highly attractive direct lines to harmony country/rock in tracks like This Time Tomorrow and Stay Gentle, that nod to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, and Mama Werewolf, which veers into Jackson Browne’s lane.
But the album is punctuated in two striking moments with the force and cut-through of a rock ‘n’ roll band in full regalia. Broken Horses finds Carlile throwing in some impressive Ann Wilson-ish controlled raggedness while the guitar builds from cruise to sharp corner to cruise again, and Sinners, Saints And Fools is as Elton John-drama-rock as its name suggests - strings, choir, deconstructing piano line into a power drive guitar solo, and a florid climax.
It’s all done well. It’s all done supremely well, actually. If these are our times, this album has fixed its place in our feeling of it and, we may come to see, in our telling of it.