Or: Hayes Carll gets further along.
“Hey-o, love is so easy when you’re moving slow,” Hayes Carll sings on the next-to-last song on Lovers and Leavers. It’s an album that does indeed move slow down an open stretch of highway, a cool night’s journey through sadness and solitude that arrives—at last—at something like dawn: “Let the world worry/ Cause you and me won’t,” that song says, and though there’s no actual crescendo there—only the slightest lilt in Carll’s voice to suggest what a breakthrough it might be—the line lands like liberation, or at the very least like a well-earned vacation. Following a stormy, searching journey through loneliness and loss, Carll’s narrator emerges on the other side—a soul survivor, the Stones might call him. After songs with titles like “Good While It Lasted” and “You Leave Alone”—both of them more or less about what you’d expect them to be about—the song called “Love is So Easy” is totally believable as the first glimmer of daybreak.
The record opens with a song called “Drive,” where out narrator is already on the road again like Jack Kerouac and Willie Nelson; like very truck-driving song you’ve ever heard, from “Willin’” to “Endless Gray Ribbon” to the collected works of Red Simpson. It’s not actually a song about hauling freight, but then again, neither were any of those: It’s a song about a lover who turned out to be a leaver; a song about solitude as something you invite and abide and in the end are haunted by; a song about the other side of freedom. Carll picks the song out on his acoustic guitar, and he has high-and-lonesome support from Dave Piltch’s upright bass and a spare rhythm from drummer Jay Bellerose, perhaps tapping it out with his hands. When Carll sings, he fights the sound of silence: “Further along/ And down the road/ Burning up your life/ Oh, it’s some place else to go/ Just drive, drive, drive.” It’s not a song about a man who’s headed somewhere in particular; it’s about a man who just needs to move. And every exit sign passes like a promise still to keep.
It’s no accident that the record begins with a lonely trip through darkness, with a driver “like a mustang in the mountains…too wild to settle down.” That’s what the whole record feels like: A midnight cruise down dusty highways and through desert canyons, a cold cup of gas station coffee in the console, cigarettes on the dash. Occasionally an FM radio station flickers with clarity, and the record broadens in jubilant color; mostly, it’s just the driver alone with his thoughts and the rumble of the engine. What he’s thinking about, mostly, is what he’s left behind, though it would be too easy to call this Carll’s Blood on the Tracks: Loneliness is the consequence of loss here but also the wage of his chosen vocation. After “Drive” comes a tune called “Sake of the Song,” where the troubadour’s solitary pursuit of his muse is elevated to a holy, monastic quest—lonely but important, and besides, what else is a singing man to do?
This is the fifth Hayes Carll album, and it’s a breakthrough—an album of considerable confidence, refinement, and purpose. His last one, KMAG YOYO, was an irresistible jumble of words and ideas, but it wore its madcap sensibilities in its goofy title. There is nothing on the new album that feels like the beer-soaked sing-along “Hard Out Here,” the subterranean homesick ramble of “KMAG YOYO,” or the punchy jokes and backward come-ons of “Another Like You.” Lovers and Leavers is the sound of fevered Technicolor fading back to the soulful precision and clarity of black and white. Produced by Joe Henry—truly, there is no one better at capturing the strange weather of a singer/songwriter in full bloom—the album is spare, lean, focused; the jokes have been whittled away, and what remains is a confessional song cycle where every word and every note feels essential to the story, to how the whole thing unfolds like a novel or an old movie. Henry frames it like he’s Stanley Kubrick or Orson Welles, keeping each shot tight on the narrator, letting the grit in Carll’s voice tell most of the story; occasionally he pans out to allow more action into the frame, and those moments explode with earned joy.
One of them arrives early, in “Sake of the Song,” where Carll’s voice and guitar are framed by piano, organ, upright bass, and the reliable rattle of Bellerose’s percussion. Here Carll narrates the isolated trudge of everyone who’s ever travelled the world peddling songs. The lyric is dense with images and ideas, yet the effect isn’t the sheer force of words, like on KMAG YOYO or for that matter Blonde on Blonde; instead, Carll feverishly draws circles around his muse like he’s Sonny Rollins in mid-trance. Though he references everything from country to grunge, this isn’t another tedious song about the perils of being a working musician. It’s about the purity of creative pursuit, about song as a spiritual quest. The singer sounds haunted by his muse, and the band’s rowdy blues works into a fever pitch that suggests the muse is hard at work, the singer’s pursuit animated by bigger things unseen.
Storm clouds drift across the edges of “Good While it Lasted,” in the form of spare piano and the low rumble of toms; Carll the troubadour is back in the center of the frame, here with a song about how everything changes and things fall apart. The narrator has put away childish thing, but it’s not enough to keep the hellhound off his trail: “I smoked my last cigarette/ I drank my last drop/ Quit doing all the things/ I swore I’d never stop/ I changed my direction/ Sang a different tune/… Things were going good there for a while/ I tried to straighten out the crooked road that I was on/ It was good while it lasted/ But it didn’t last too long.” It’s a reckoning with how things crumble despite our best efforts to hold it all together; there’s a divorce song lurking in here too, perhaps, but it’s really a song about time, and in the end Carll seems to find peace with it: “Nothing lasts forever/ Time knows that it’s true/ Sometimes a little while’s the best that we can do.”
“You Leave Alone” could almost be the flipside of “Drive.” The protagonist here is another travellin’ man, but he sets down his guitar case the second he finds something better: “Oh, the money was good on the road in the springtime/ But one look from that girl and he settled down.” Carll’s guitar line here is like a fraying tightrope, Bellerose’s tapped percussion a swaying big-top beat, the arrangement spare but nevertheless evocative of that place where whimsy is undercut by melancholy—think the E-Street Band on “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”
Carll sings with a coarse Texas drawl, and tips his hat from time to time at Texas greats like Guy Clark, but in the end this is no more a country album than, well, Old No. 1. These aren’t songs for the honky tonk. They’re songs for the campfire, for the long haul, for the wee small hours. None are as desolate as “The Love That We Need,” a song about love dulled by comfort and complacency. This is what it sounds like when love dies with a whimper; when it just fades away: “You say ‘I love you’/ I say ‘me too’/ We don’t think much about it/ It’s just a thing that we do/ We go out walking/ We don’t talk much/ We lie down together/ But our hearts never touch.” This is another one of those songs where Henry pans out to capture a fuller vista, this time marked by piano, toms, and maracas; there’s a lushness that makes those lyrics harder, and Carll sings from a place of loneliness that’s well past romance or hope.
When “Love is So Easy” rolls around it’s light as a feather, nimble on its feet. Carll sings it like he hasn’t a care in the world, Pitch’s bass pops in all the right places, and a playful little organ figure from Tyler Chester makes it sound like a C&W equivalent of those earliest sides from Elvis Costello’s Attractions. It’s a song about hiding away in a new romance, a moment of pleasure where eros becomes almost Edenic. It’s a weathered love song about second birth; he doesn’t actually sing about taking his lover through misty gardens all wet with rain, but might as well.
Lovers and Leavers feels like a crossroads. The singer has made it through the night, cut up and bloody but still standing. He’s made his choices, and he’s driven through the solitude to a place where new love awaits—not a promise, but a possibility. Who could ask for more? There are sad songs here yet none of them sound like despair: They are reckonings with loss and slippery second chances. A couple, in particular, feel like compass blades, signposts for the journey. “The Magic Kid” was written for Carll’s son, who dreams of becoming a sleight-of-hand man. Here the drivin’ man, the restless troubadour from earlier in the record sees what it is to put yourself out there, to love fearlessly, to stand in the bewitching weather of your song, your magic: “That’s my kid with the cards/ He’s nine years old/ With a head full of wonder/ And a heart of gold/ And there’s not a trick that he can’t figure out/ And he’s never stopped the show for fear of doubt/ Like the rest of us did.” But the record ends with “Jealous Moon,” far less malevolent than Parker Millsap’s “Jealous Sun.” Here the heavens long for everything that’s painful and beautiful about this world: “It breaks her heart that down below/ Rivers fun, flowers grow/ But she can’t feel them bloom.” When the song plays, there’s nothing to do but surrender to this world as a dark marvel, a rebuke to our solitude. Here then is this troubadour’s gift: His song about his nine-year-old is the one that tells you what you need to know about living fearlessly as a grown-up, and his song about the moon is the one that affirms the beauty and humanity in our world of fracture. And he makes it seem so easy.