It’s been a charmed few years for Brandi Carlile since she released 2018’s By the Way, I Forgive You. The Washington State singer-songwriter co-founded the groundbreaking country collective the Highwomen, covered Joni Mitchell’s Blue at a triumphant concert event, produced Grammy-winning work for Tanya Tucker, and wrote a memoir. Carlile herself gave a standout Grammy performance of “The Joke” in 2019, wowing both those in the know and Carlile neophytes with the pulverizing power of her voice.
Carlile’s new album In These Silent Days opens with the song “Right on Time,” a ballad about apology and understanding that begins with solemn piano chords before swelling in dramatic fashion. “It wasn’t right,” she cries, her voice reaching a spine-tingling crescendo as the music halts, “but it was right on time.” She’s not messing with a good thing so much as offering subtle refinements of the strengths — particularly as a vocalist — that led to her breakout.
Mitchell’s influence looms large on the new album along with clear nods to Elton John and others in the Seventies FM rock/pop pantheon. Working once again with By the Way producers Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings, Carlile blends her intimate style of storytelling with the jangle of Mitchell’s “California” on “You and Me on the Rock”; John’s woozy swagger on her indictment of evangelism, “Sinners, Saints and Fools”; and a hybrid of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company on the thundering “Broken Horses,” featuring sublime harmonies and instrumental work from creative partners Tim and Phil Hanseroth.
Where By the Way, I Forgive You wrestled with the idea of forgiveness for her transgressors, In These Silent Days often finds Carlile in a position of needing to seek it. “Mama Werewolf” depicts her as restless creature who’s “up all night when the world should sleep,” asking her child to be the “silver bullet” that pulls her back in. The eerie “When You’re Wrong” has her worrying over the growing distance to someone who “may be here today, but tomorrow you’re a ghost” as it careens to an intense finish of guitar squall and Carlile’s distorted wail.
The new songs don’t always reach bone the way Carlile’s best work can. “Letter to the Past” feels adrift in midtempo metaphors about being a “stone wall in a world full of rubber bands.” And “Stay Gentle” is a nice enough lesson, but she previously covered similar territory in “The Mother” and “The Joke.”
Where Carlile excels is when she leads with empathy and self-awareness. On the stripped-down album closer “Throwing Good After Bad,” Carlile addresses someone who might be “addicted to the rush, the chase, the new” and at risk of forfeiting everything. “Now the party’s over and you’re dancing alone,” she warns. “You’ve been spinnin’ round for hours, the band have all gone home.”
It could just as easily be a message to any hard-working performer with a family at home as it could be Carlile’s urgent reminder to herself to leave the rockstar bullshit out on the road. Either way, it’s the kind of vulnerable, complicated statement that has made her such a relatable artist.