Brandi Carlile has always performed to the very back row of the arena, even when the arena was a small rock club or a mid-sized theater.
Carlile’s likely done playing those kinds of places. Last year, she landed a spot on President Obama’s playlist of favorite songs, and she released a benefit album of artists like Dolly Parton, Pearl Jam and Adele covering songs from her breakthrough 2007 album The Story. She is well on her way to big things.
And this year, she’s back with her best album since The Story, and maybe her best yet. It’s called By the Way, I Forgive You, and it features cover art by one of those Avett brothers, photography by Pete Souza (who documented the Obama White House), string arrangements by the late, legendary Paul Buckmaster, and production by Shooter Jennings and country producer du jour Dave Cobb.
That Carlile remains the center of gravity in this star-studded universe is a testament to her considerable talents. On By the Way, I Forgive You, she ably navigates a batch of songs that range from folk, country and blues to symphonic pop and rock pieces that would sound at home on a Broadway stage. No matter the backdrop, Carlile sounds completely in control.
Her powers peak on a song called “The Joke,” a grandiose anthem for the marginalized set against delicate piano and a heart-swelling string section. The chorus positively towers, with Carlile delivering its simple lesson—“the joke’s on them”—forcefully enough to reach every single struggling kid that needs to hear it.
On the piano-powered “Party of One,” which closes the album, Carlile sounds like the American Adele, right down to the crack in her voice at the song’s emotional center and the strings that envelop her in its redemptive final stanza. In “Harder to Forgive,” you can hear unforced twang in her vocals, just before the song transitions from soulful rambler into its eye-popping, mildly psychedelic coda.
Even By the Way’s low-key moments lead to drama. “Every Time I Hear That Song” opens the album with a pretty acoustic guitar line and Carlile’s voice echoing through a space so well-captured, you can practically close your eyes and see the art on the walls. (Cobb and Jennings’ production work here is delectable.) “Hold Out Your Hand” isn’t happy being just a hokey country burner; instead it explodes into a skyscraping chorus and a shout-along series of ba-da-da, ba-da-das.
In the end, the album’s most even-keeled moment, “Evangeline,” is also its sweetest. What Carlile’s love song to her daughter lacks in volume, it makes up for in attention to detail that will resonate with any parent:
The first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep
She broke a thousand heirlooms I was never meant to keep
She filled my life with color, cancelled plans and trashed my car
But none of that was ever who we are