Americana troubadour Hayes Carll evolves into a plumber of the soul on his fine new album Lovers and Leavers. I imagine him sitting back in a cracked leather easy chair, letting out a long slow breath, and surveying the haste and waste of the world around him before starting work on these songs.
“Drive and drive, don’t you ever sleep?” he demands of a hyperactive acquaintance in the tone-setting opening track, “Drive” (not the Cars hit). “Sake of the Song” condemns the 24-7 culture too, specifically the excesses of the music business and the victims of ambition, calling out “record deals and trained seals and puppets on a string” before cleverly turning around the meaning of the title phrase at the end.
The piano part and chord changes of “Good While It Lasted” remind me a little of Dire Straits. But this is the kind of album where the words are even more essential than the music, or rather where the two are thoroughly symbiotic. In Carll’s wobbly, spilled-coffee voice, these stories and landscapes sound meandering at first blush, but in point of fact prove pretty acidic.
Unexpected chord changes and an echoey arrangement suggest familiarity with late-era Bob Dylan in “My Friends.” It’s a melodic departure from the traditional folk/Americana vocabulary Carll typically bends to his own muse. The happy result is that the song sounds like nothing else – on the album, or really anywhere.
The crazy-sad “The Love That We Need” laments a relationship that lacks a necessary spark. Carll’s creaky voice delivers each line like an individual stroke of a paintbrush – or cut of a knife. But then there’s a change of mood. The quiet, dreamy “The Magic Kid” offers a break from regret and cynicism with its metaphorical image of hope in a new generation. And a shimmery island flavor props up the Townes-like talk-singing of “Love Is So Easy”: “Love is so easy when you’re movin’ slow…Let the world worry, ’cause you and me won’t.”
“Movin’ slow” may be the life goal, but the song moves fast, creating a pocket of joy and contentment, a smooth stretch on a rutted road. It’s followed by the fanciful “Jealous Moon,” whose child-simple tune puts me in mind of John Prine, but which reveals yet another angle of the easy-chair perspective Carll has brought to bear. Closing the album in a contemplative mood, it transposes the loneliness of the human condition onto the figure of a celestial body – a classic distancing effect of poetry and metaphor, rendered with integrity and skill.