Forgiveness doesn’t come easy. It requires laying bare heart and soul to reconciliation, but it also requires a wrenching physical feeling that whatever hurt or wrong is being forgiven may never be forgotten, and forgiveness is hollow. The primal act of forgiveness is to love oneself enough to open oneself, to make oneself vulnerable, and then to act in unconditional love to accept the other as she is, even to hurt sometimes when the other hurts.
On her haunting and ethereally beautiful new album, By the Way, I Forgive You, Brandi Carlile delivers a stunningly powerful cycle of songs that illustrates the often-complex cycle of love and forgiveness. Carlile’s raw, emotional vocals go right to the heart of the matter, and the sparseness of many of the arrangements captures the aching, poignant desire arising out of ragged desolation and the longing for and recognition of love for oneself and another. Produced by Dave Cobb — who also plays guitar, piano, and percussion on the album — By the Way, I Forgive You includes a stellar cast of musicians, including Phil Hanseroth on vocals and guitar; Tim Hanseroth on vocals and bass; Shooter Jennings on piano, keys, and guitar; Chris Powell on drums and percussion; and John Mark Painter on French horn, and with the late Paul Buckmaster (Elton John) arranging strings. The Hanseroth twins co-wrote with Carlile all the songs on the album, with Cobb joining them on the writing of “The Joke.”
The album closes with a masterpiece, “Party of One,” that should take its place in music history right along with the songs of Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. Sparsely arranged, it opens with soft piano chords that soon soar, joined by swelling strings, as Carlile’s vocals soar into a glorious anthemic declaration of love. The beauty of the song lies in its ability to cut both ways: it’s a brilliant affirmation of self-love, but it could also be an recognition and acceptance of an other, with a gentle demand that the other affirms the singer’s own self. “Waiter send this to the table/The party of one/The only other lonely soul in this place … I loved you the first time I saw you/And you know I love you still/But I am tired/And I am yours.”
The album’s opening track, “Every Time I Hear That Song,” is a masterpiece of irony. Just when you think a relationship has ended and that you’re over the pain and healed, you hear a song that brings you back to everything that was good and bad about the relationship. The bright, almost pop, ballad, belies the complex character of love and forgiveness that the singer names. “Every Time I Hear That Song” delivers a perfect take on the torturous, difficult cycle involved in forgiving and forgetting — forgiveness requires space and time, but in one moment, hearing a song, sparks the regret or hurt harbored in the heart:
And didn’t it break your heart
When you watched my smile fading?
Did it ever cross your mind
That one day the tables would be turned?
They told me the best revenge
Would be a life well lived
And the strongest one that holds
Will be the hardest one to earn
By the way
I forgive you
Maybe I should thank you
For giving me what I’ve found
Because without you around
I’ve been doing just fine
Except for any time I hear that song.
“Hold Out Your Hand” is a whirling dervish of a song, accompanied by a joyous barroom chorus, that celebrates the power of community in making one whole: “Hold out your hand/Take hold of mine and then/Round and round we go/Don’t you want to dance/What a glorious sight.” “Sugartooth,” a song about a junkie with a good heart but with an uncontrolled desire for the sweet release of heroin, rocks along with a piano score and a swelling chorus that recalls Elton John’s “Country Comfort.” The spare opening of “Whatever You Do” hauntingly creates the space where the singer struggles the poignant character of love of the other and self; the swelling strings and the soaring—almost screaming—vocals on the bridge perfectly express the singer’s frustrations, desire, and freedom. “There’s a road left behind me that I’d rather not speak of/And a hard one, ahead of me too/I love you whatever you do/But I’ve got a life to live too.”
By the Way, I Forgive You delivers a canny wisdom in gloriously beautiful songs that stay in the soul once the album is finished. Carlile’s ability to turn a phrase, to name an emotion with just the right word, to capture a feeling in a chord or a musical phrase, to deliver music that carries us out of ourselves only to return us to ourselves with a restored sense of ourselves is majestic. By the Way, I Forgive You is an album for the ages because it goes right to the heart of love and forgiveness in songs that mirror the human feelings those acts carry with them.