From the outside, it seems like it’s been a hell of a three-plus years for the Washington stater Brandi Carlile, both as a human and an artist: the rip-roaring success of the country supergroup The Highwomen, multiple Grammy nominations and wins for her own work, headlining festivals, the publication of her #1 New York Times Best Selling memoir Broken Horses, and winning the Americana Music Association’s award for Artist of the Year. With every new project and wrinkle in her shows, she seems to have relieved in each step along the way. But on In These Silent Days, Carlile slows down, reassesses and realigns her priorities, and faces the rockier aspects of her memories to give us a glimpse on what she discovered during the time away from the life of a touring musician as her stages grew bigger, spotlights brighter, and dreams a little wilder. And the result is a stone-cold, instant classic.
The album raises the curtains with “Right On Time,” a confessional, theatrical track that disguises itself as a piano ballad over the course of the first verse before the instrumentation expands on the second with subtle layers of electric guitar, organ, and strings to set the tone for Carlile to deliver a career-highlight note toward the end. This minimal building technique is a major essence of the sound of this record which can go from stripped-down to avant-garde in a blink. Thematically, as well, “Right On Time” foreshadows much of In These Silent Days. “It’s not too late / Either way, I lose you in these silent days / It wasn’t right / But it was right on time,” she senses a relationship drifting away as her voice whips and burns like a roaring desert wind, in the face of understandable anger.
The Joni Mitchell inspired “You and Me on The Rock” interweaves Americana sound and early 70s rock in a very classic way. Buoyed by pristine harmonies from Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius, again, Carlile impresses with a great performance on the mic. The track seems like an ode to tradition of love songs that forsake worldly pursuits for the beloved, but the lyrics are weighted with a sense of melancholy: “Me out in my garden / And you out on your walk / Is all the distance this poor girl can take / Without listening to you talk.”
Opening up with an haunting howl, Carlile switches the dynamics with the western epic “Broken Horses” which is accompanied by a wide range instrumentation and an indelible chorus line. Certainly bound to be exceptional live, the blazing intensity of the singer’s delivery and Tim Hanseroth’s solo take the track to even greater heights. Here, Carlile looks back on her youth and tells a story of connection and empathy in the midst of distance and isolation.
The second half of the album stumbles a little at first, and “Mama Werewolf,” in particular, feels somehow aonically ambiguous. The track serves as a lighthouse to the defense mechanisms that may be hidden inside and even inherited—exploring the perseverance of a mother to protect her children as her body and soul suffer: “If my good intentions go running wild / If I cause you pain my own sweet child / Won’t you promise me you’ll be the one / My silver bullet in the gun.”
A song of aging, regret, and hurt forced by past, “When You’re Wrong” is perhaps the most intimate, direct piece of the album. “You’re sweeping up the floods and you’ve been vacuuming the fires / And you lay down every night next to a goddamn liar,” Carlile mourns for a friend stuck in an abusive relationship as she wistfully makes compromises with herself in love and life. From delicate to forceful emotional cracks to that one powerful howl at the end once again keep things on the chiller side.
Carlile tries rocking out one more time on the dourly thunderous “Sinners Saints & Fools.” The story-song deals with strict interpretation of religious and sociopolitical rules, and condemns those who “hurl ancient scripture” at marginalized people “to justify completely excluding them from all the things that bring us joy.” The lyrical content could feel a bit preachy in the wrong hands, but the singer’s shrieks, the swirling strings, and Hansenroth’s powerful electric guitar riffs help it connect and add a musical exclamation point to the statement.
In These Silent Days binds farewell to a soon-to-be ex with a gentle yet devastating ballad, “Throwing Good After Bad.” Singing from the shadows, Carlile delivers some of the most expressive metaphors on the record as she acknowledges her partner’s fierce nature – “You got a beautiful mind / And a soul of a coyote” – and forewarns her of the cost of never slowing down – “Hunger driving you mad / Throwing good after bad.” It seems like a lesson that Carlile herself have learned, and became a reminder that she keeps in her mind.
Brandi Carlile’s catalog has always been uniformly strong, with several high points, and this very personal, yet universal, record of experience has certainly became another one of those points. Yes, isn’t necessarily a radical reinvention for neither Carlile nor her collaborators, but song for song, it’s the most compassionate and unflinching collection of the artist’s career thanks to the fresh clarity her memoir’s reflection and self-examination provided her. Carlile found plenty of empathy and encouragement, resistance and recovery, and confession and acceptance when she retreated, but she also found a new meaning in the otherworldy haze of introspection.