Songwriter Hayes Carll has always placed his craft first. His best work has been defined by its rich irony, a keen eye for quirky images, and quick, catchy melodies that were equally at home in a honky tonk, a car, or on a festival stage. Lovers and Leavers, his Joe Henry-produced fifth album is a departure. It's sparser, airier, more directly confessional. In the past, Carll's story-songs more often than not reflected a likable wandering rogue, a gypsy songman whose authority problem and self-deprecating attitude made quick friends of listeners. But a poet was always there too, just under the surface. These songs reflect wisdom gained from hard living, embracing gratitude, loss, and love. The only electric guitar on Lovers and Leavers is Eric Heywood's pedal steel; Henry placed Carll's acoustic guitar front and center framed by David Pilch's basses, Jay Bellerose's drums and percussion, and Tyler Chester's keyboards (no synths).
In "Sake of the Song," a swirling Wurlitzer, dreamy steel, and strummed six-string help Carll paint word portraits of those who share his vocation, and with a hummable melody he also reveals the traps that waylay them. "You Leave Alone" is a country waltz. The acoustic guitar is accompanied only by upright bass and fingersnaps. It would have been perfect for the pre-outlaw Waylon Jennings. The bittersweet "Good While It Lasted" is about leaving behind bad habits and ultimately a marriage. But it discloses a way of accepting any moment for what it brings rather than wasting its potential longing for what has been lost. Carll tackles the other side, too; the doubt and fear these realizations bring in "Love Don't Let Me Down" find him weighing busted dreams against future hopes. "The Love That We Need" features a gospel piano, hand percussion, and acoustic guitar. They frame a narrative about stasis in romantic relationships and commitments; it renders them impossible. In the refrain he posits the revelation "We got the life that we wanted/But not the love that we need." In spite of pain received and given, his delivery reveals an empathic tenderness that refuses to blame. "The Magic Kid," written about his son, is the set's watermark. Carll directly relates the wonder of a nine-year-old and the blinding truth imparted by a pure heart: "You shine your light for everyone to see/The only one I've known who's truly free...." Even in the set's lighter moments, such as the rag shuffle "Love Is So Easy," his poetry is searing in its simplicity, unobstructed and unaffected.
Carll presents these songs with open hands and heart; he made Lovers and Leavers to prove something to himself. With the canny assistance of Henry's sensitive production, the songwriter's vulnerability rises into open view and elevates his craft along with it. In Carll's world -- and hopefully ours -- love wins, no matter what.