For someone so well known for his storytelling, Hayes Carll is a man of few words. Either that or a chronic self-editor: Speaking slowly and carefully, with long, thoughtful pauses, he often stops to correct himself and start all over mid-sentence, once the optimal phrasing has emerged in his mind. But on Carll’s new LP, What It Is, the Texas singer-songwriter decided to focus on what he felt rather than what sounded best.
“I’ve been doing this almost 20 years and it’s been a great run, but I felt like I was unhappy and disconnected in a way from my process, and from my life in general,” says Carll. “It felt false to me and unfulfilling to be just making shit up and throwing it out there and hoping people would like it. It’s much more gratifying to pour myself into it and feel connected to the work.”
Carll is likely his own worst critic. He insists that he’s a “shitty interview” and predicts he’ll follow up with better answers in a couple days’ time, once he’s had a chance to “obsess” over them. (As if on cue, an email arrives two days later.) So it’s saying something that he seems so unequivocally happy with What It Is, his sixth full-length album in 17 years, which moves deftly from playful love songs to wry political satire, all with the self-deprecating sense of humor that has long been his trademark.
On his last album, 2016’s Lovers and Leavers, that humor largely went missing — and, not so coincidentally, its toughest criticisms came from outside parties. “It was what I expected,” Carll says of the lukewarm response he received for that somber effort, which he’d recorded in the wake of a divorce. “I came up in honky-tonks and dive bars and the Texas Country scene. I may consider myself a singer-songwriter, but a large percentage of my fan base wants to drink beer and have something to dance to.”
Like the scene Carll sets in the brand-new video for album track “Times Like These,” which captures the two-stepping vibe of a Texas dance hall.
Still, Lovers and Leavers was the album that Carll knew he needed to make at the time. “I wasn’t in a very humorous place, personally, and I also worried that I relied on that too much. I needed to prove to myself that I can make art without that,” he says. Duly “liberated,” those lessons proved valuable as he returned to write What It Is. “[I learned] that it’s okay to lay down the mask, to let myself into the songs in a way I hadn’t. I always used humor or characters or an outsider perspective to shield myself from being in there. I felt more comfortable allowing more of myself to show.”
It also helped that Carll was simply at a better place in his life this time around. A big part of that was his new fiancée and collaborator, Allison Moorer, who co-produced the album with Brad Jones and shares in the writing credits on half of its 12 songs. “She’s my main cowriter, my life partner, and in a lot of ways, my creative partner. She’s certainly my first read, my first listener, and the first person I talk to about my work,” he says. Theirs is a matchup of complementary outlooks. “We’re very different as writers in that I don’t think she’s ever done anything that’s not really closely aligned with how she feels about the world.”
Some of the best moments on What It Is come via songs written together by Carll and Moorer. Opener “None’ya” is a love letter between a charmingly irascible couple, with a jaunty fiddle-laden melody that immediately strikes a contrast with Lovers and Leavers. They also join forces on “Jesus and Elvis,” a dive-bar-and-velvet-painting update on John Prine’s “Sam Stone” that adds a woozy piano and horn accompaniment for mournful effect. Even when Carll handles the writing on his own, like the percolating boogie of “If I May Be So Bold,” it swaggers with a mix of Sturgill Simpson’s blue-collar philosophizing and Robert Earl Keen’s plainspoken irreverence.
Perhaps most striking is the withering social commentary of “Fragile Men,” a song that Carll wrote with pop singer Lolo. “When it started, it wasn’t really part of any movement or even a cultural observation. It was about some of her experiences in the music business with patriarchy. She just came in pissed off,” Carll says. But as the scenes of white nationalists marching at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, played out in the summer of 2017, the focus shifted. “We said, ‘How can we address this and disarm it, make it less threatening and take the piss out of these pathetic men who are out there trying to terrify people? … How can we point out how weak and fragile they are?'”
A rarity in Carll’s catalogue for addressing a topical issue so directly, “Fragile Men” approaches its subject in a manner typically his own: with a thick layer of sarcasm directed at the titular males. “Keith Richards said humor is the greatest weapon in rock & roll. I’m probably misquoting him, but I think a certain number of people tune out when they feel like they’re being preached at or can’t relate to it,” Carll says. “I always looked at things, whether political or not, as though humor is a way to humanize, to relate to the human experience, for people. Because if you have a sense of humor, you can’t be all bad.”
Much like the mask that Lovers and Leavers helped him to remove, Carll admits that broaching politics was something he felt “insecure” about in the past. “When I started out, it was maybe one person in a bar, just hoping that they didn’t throw a beer bottle at me. That was my starting point. It took me a while to develop the confidence that I had something worth saying,” he says.
But that, too, has changed. “I have a real problem with anyone who furthers their own agenda by dividing people they’re supposed to represent. I don’t think that does anyone any good, and I don’t care which side of the aisle you’re on. I just don’t think that’s a controversial issue,” Carll says. “Now, that doesn’t mean some people aren’t going to lose their shit and come after me. But at the end of the day, I can’t live in fear of that.”
Given Carll’s newfound promise to himself to be more present, both in the world around him and in his own life, it’s apt that the What It Is title track would be its most carefree — a celebratory porch-picking jam about learning to forgive your own mistakes and let go of the past.
“[The album] feels of a piece. It’s where I am right now; these are the major things in my life,” Carll says with a mix of pride and relief, as though talking about its creation has reminded him of the release all over again. “To be able to articulate them and put that work into the world feels really good to me. It feels like my art has lined up with my life. That’s something I’m proud of.”