“There’s a whole world out there waiting full of stories to be told,” sings Hayes Carll on his latest record, over a locomotive drum-and-upright bass shuffle that’s part Tennessee Three, part Blonde On Blonde. “And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all/ If I may be so bold.” It’s a call you wish more songwriters would heed, Carll included. At his best, his narrative skills tilt towards the idiosyncratic and specific — see the title track of his 2014 LP KMAG YOYO, a first-person military narrative about an acid-droppin’, heroin-hustlin’ recruit in Afganistan. On Lovers and Leavers, Carll made a fairly straightforward, universal LP about the joys, heartbreaks and pratfalls of relationships. It was potent, but the worldly barstool wiseass was missed.
For What It Is, the Texas songsmith marshals all his storyteller modes. And maybe to tap into the aforementioned world of stories, he’s brought in other writing voices, more than usual. Foremost is singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, his fiancée, who co-produced What It Is and co-wrote half its 12 songs. Unsurprisingly for two lovebird divorcees (Moorer was previously married to Steve Earle), plenty of the songs look take a clear-eyed look at relationships. They include “None’ya” — as in “none’ya business” — involving a sniping couple clearly in love, and clearly unafraid to call each other out on their mishegas. “Things You Don’t Wanna Know,” a slow-churning southern soul gem complete with bluesy horns, does a similar thing in the voice of a guy struggling with bad habits, and holding secrets that might be best left that way. “Nobody wants to hear the truth/ They only wanna see a show,” he sings, in a line reflecting both the song narrative and our current political circus.
In moments like these, the showman and the soul man in Carll come together in new harmony. On “Times Like These,” a rowdy country-rocker about the travails of a working man, the singer takes his emotional temperature and perhaps the planet’s too: “It’s so hard to tell if this is heaven or hell and I can never measure by degrees/But it’s sure getting warm around here in times like these.” Polemics are mostly sly, and better for it. “Wild Pointy Finger” is a judge-not exercise with witty turns (“I’ve got ten digits like most other people/I can build the church but I can’t hold the steeple.”) Even better is “Fragile Men,” a co-write with Lauren Pritchard (aka Lolo) that seems to target Confederate-flag-clutching racists, gynophobes, and other supposed-good-ol’-days fetishists with surgical sarcasm: “The whole world is exploding/And I know it feels so strange/ It must make you so damn angry/They’re expecting you to change,” croons Carll, a one-man Greek chorus, echoed by hilariously weeping pedal steel and lush strings.
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Then there’s “Jesus and Elvis,” a quintessential Carll character study after John Prine, co-written with Moorer and the great Matraca Berg. It’s a song so undeniable in its craft that Kenny Chesney cut it back in 2016; Carll dials back the delivery a bit here, which only improves it. Like the work of another artist who recently envisioned a velvet Elvis, it’s songwriting that doesn’t pander to mainstream country, alt-country, so-called Americana, indie-folk, or what-have you. It just tells its story, indelibly.