Very few roots singer/songwriters would dare include “joie de vivre” in a rambling song about the state of the world; fewer still would get away with it. But two songs into his sixth album, the Texas-born, Nashville-based Hayes Carll manages this modest feat when detailing what it takes to be a good citizen: “I just wanna do my labor, love my girl, and help my neighbor,” he declares during “Times Like These,” his rapid delivery running the words together. And then, shooting beyond his upper register, he adds, “while keeping all my joie de vivre,” almost turning the exclamation into the beginning of a spirited “yeehaw.” As he’s long done, Carll is poking a little fun at himself for using such a phrase at all. The levity underscores a chagrined attitude toward the song’s subject matter, as though life in the late 2010s is itself a grim joke.
This barbed humor recalls vintage Carll, from not long after he emerged in the early 2000s with an interesting take on the Texas outlaw tradition. Setting his songs in dive bars and small towns, he livened up familiar subject matter with a sharp sense of humor, usually making himself the butt of any joke he might crack, as when he starts a bar brawl with the Almighty during “She Left Me for Jesus.” But he got serious on 2016’s Lovers and Leavers, a stark acoustic album inspired by his divorce and the gnawing realization that his songs weren’t quite reflecting his life. It’s a fine album, but, minus those moments of irony, sarcasm, and self-deprecation, it’s one that almost anyone could make.
He shakes loose again on What It Is. Carll brings in a rambunctious band for these songs, ranging from barnstormers like “Beautiful Thing” to the bluegrass of the title track. The rambling sound perfectly suits his demeanor, flourishes of organ and fiddle underscoring subtle winks and wry asides. Opener “None’ya” finds him in thrall to a mystifying lover, the sort who paints the front porch turquoise because it keeps out bad spirits. When he asks where’s she’s going, she quips, “None’ya business.” The point of the song isn’t her eccentricity but his response to it—that is, his promise to appreciate the woman in front of him. When he sings, “I try because I want to” in the chorus, he draws out the second word as if in awe of his good fortune.
The subject of “None’ya,” as Carll has said, is Allison Moorer, the veteran country artist who co-produced this album and is his fiancée. The love songs here seem less about her in particular and more about his struggle to be a good partner and person. “If I May Be So Bold” and “I Will Stay” are sweet songs about determination and devotion, but they lack a certain, well, je ne sais quoi. Carll’s sharpest instincts don’t show here, so it sounds like he’s writing about self-reflection without doing much self-reflecting, solving equations without showing the math.
Masculinity threads through these tunes, linking a love song like “Be There” to a political one like “Fragile Men,” co-written with the Tennessee singer/songwriter Lolo. Racists marching in Charlottesville inspired “Fragile Men,” and the lyrics incisively dissect their petty pathology: “It must make you so damn angry they’re expecting you to change.” But again, the song never delivers the catharsis you want.
Maybe it’s the fussy string arrangement or the unwavering directness, without a character or a narrative to bring the ideas to life. Something similar happens on the squirrely “Wild Pointy Finger,” about trolls blaming everybody else for everything. The ideas are sound, but both songs need anchors, next steps to make them sound like he’s not just lampooning convenient targets.
The best song on What It Is is the most familiar. Carll wrote “Jesus and Elvis” years ago with Moorer and Matraca Berg, and Kenny Chesney recorded it for 2016’s Cosmic Hallelujah. It describes a dive bar presumably deep in the heart of Texas, decorated with velvet paintings of “the King of kings and the King of rock’n’roll.” Each verse discloses a bit more about the tragic significance of those decorations, and Carll makes that backstory sound more human and more heartbreaking than Chesney ever did. It’s the one song that’s most disconnected from Carll’s story, but it captures something very special in the everyday, a bit of the joy of life even in the face of death.