After the introspective ruminations of Lovers And Leavers, his 2016 album, Hayes Carll seems to have recovered his sometimes impish sense of mischief for his latest album, What It Is. Lovers And Leavers was of course a “break up” album and they’re not generally noted for being upbeat but here Carll is certainly on a bounce with several of the songs good old-fashioned Texan red dirt rockers while the quieter numbers are a fine indication of where his head is at right now. Co-producer (and fiancé) Allison Moorer has certainly settled his heart but he’s not so settled when it comes to the likes of racism and the fate of veterans, both the subject of songs here.
He opens with the nonchalant humour of None’ya, a sly nod to his current relationship which uses his Texas drawl to great effect before banging into the rambunctious rocker Times Like These which takes an oblique swipe at the White House as Carll delivers his own state of the nation address. There’s some more rock on the squirreling bar room blues of Beautiful Thing while If I May Be So Bold clatters along like a cross between Steve Earle and Johnny Cash. American Dream meanwhile finds Carll and his top class bunch of Nashville pickers on top form as they funnel some bluegrass licks into a jaunty rocker.
Jesus & Elvis is probably known to most folk who will buy this album as Carll has been playing it live for several years while it was recorded some time back by Kenny Chesney. It’s been worth waiting for Carll’s version as the songs takes on an almost classic status up there with some of John Prine’s work. Fragile Men also tackles a weighty subject, influenced as it is by events in Charlottesville but its somewhat portentous arrangement dims it in relationship to the songs surrounding it. However the quirky Wild Pointy Finger makes up for this as Carll sidles up to the mic over some inventive percussion and slinky finger picking on a song which seems to be pointing the finger at the eruption of ill advised and plain wrong social media commentary.
Throw in songs such as Things You Don’t Wanna Know, a fine southern soul influenced number and I Will Stay, an excellent love ballad and What It Is is on a par with the best of Carll’s albums. It would be unfair to say it’s a return to form after Lovers & Leavers as that was an exceptional album but it’s certainly a return to the Hayes Carll many people expect.
Hayes Carll is touring the UK in May including a Glasgow show. All dates here.