Five years ago Hayes Carll was riding high, his latest release 2011’s KMAG YOYO spinning on the airwaves and voted best album of the year by The Americana Music Association. Comparisons abounded, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark just three artists Carll was favourably compared with. The tall rangy Texan was a firm live favourite with songs like she Left Me For Jesus and Bad Liver and a Broken Heart alluding to a carefree wayfarer who didn’t mind the odd drink or three and he toured extensively with the album. In the wake of this success however he parted company with his label, Lost Highway, and found himself in the throes of a divorce. His return to recording with Lovers and Leavers finds him in a new space, the songs sparer, the mood reflective.
Recorded over five days with producer Joe Henry and a classy small ensemble (Jay Bellerose percussion, Tyler Chester keyboards, Eric Heywood pedal steel and David Pilch bass) Carll has come up trumps with a set of songs that rarely move beyond a canter. He pitches dusty tales of small town dreamers, recalls good times and professes a father’s pride for his son, the mood perfectly matched to the music. The lovers and leavers of the title perhaps reflect Carll’s circumstances, now divorced but in a new relationship with Alison Moorer (who co writes a song here), as he delivers a sublime broke down and busted love song on Good While It Lasted while The Love We Need, despite its tentative frailty, is a beacon of hope.
The bulk of the album however is classic Americana dream weaving, Carll, unhurried, his drawl recalling his forebears. The opener Drive slowly unfurls like a lonesome highway, You Leave Alone is a slow waltz time portrait of an American everyman, a mechanic who “built cars that never went nowhere” dreaming of better things but stuck in his home town. He waxes poetic on Jealous Moon, a crepuscular and spare imagining of the lunar orb gazing on our comings and goings, and invokes a wearied awareness of bad company on the wasted My Friends, a wonderfully realised drunken waltz with some excellent steel from Heywood.
Two songs underpin the album. The Magic Kid is a tender and proud tribute to Carll’s son, a nine year old who likes to perform his magic tricks and it moves on to a meditation on the innocence and the possibilities open to the kids of today. Sake Of The Song, the title a deliberate nod to Townes Van Zandt one presumes, is a manifesto of sorts, a call to singers and players to soldier on despite the “record deals and trained seals and puppets on a string”. As on all the songs here the band are excellent. They can be dry and dusty, or portray a slight jauntiness with some fine use of Wurlitzer to add a dizzy aspect to a couple of the numbers, the playing recalling the perfection achieved on Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and Guy Clark’s debut album.
Lovers and Leavers is Out now via Hwy 87 Records