You hardly expect a guy who’s written songs with titles like “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and “Good While It Lasted” to go all giddy on you. But everybody has a moment when they realize something cherished is over, yet there’s no choice but to move on. For roustabout-looking Texas troubadour Hayes Carll, that flash arrives on the title track of his upcoming sixth record, What It Is.
Co-written with fellow singer-songwriter and fiancée Allison Moorer, “What It Is” finds Carll walking away from a situation that doesn’t sound terribly healthy — hearts broke, doors were slammed — and deciding to push on, even if another calamity could wait around the bend. “Every wave that crashes rearranges all the sand/And puts another path in front of me,” he sings in a voice that’s grown increasingly grainy with each new album.
On past records, Carll has operated in aggro-honky-tonk, stark-balladeer and droll-strummer modes. Anchored by a proudly springy banjo and a hardwood-floor drum, “What It Is” injects a hint of Sweetheart of the Rodeo pluck into the mix. Even though it’s been over 50 years after the Byrds’ milestone rock-meets-Nashville project, the result is still a record that sounds both retro and garden-fresh. Carll’s delivery never quite rises above a combination of wariness and weariness, but the vibrant arrangement stays the course and refuses to let him get more discouraged. A buoyant old-timer instrument and a dose of cautious optimism will do that to a person.