A less scientifically minded person might find some meaning in that fact that it has taken 5 years for Hayes Carll to release his fifth album, Lovers and Leavers – which follows the commercial and critical success of 2011’s KMAG YOYO (& other American stories) – and that it was recorded in, drum-roll please, just 5 days. Spooky, huh? Yeah, not really. The 5 year gap is only a minor extension on the 3 year turn-around of his previous records, and is probably due in part to his switching record labels and divorcing during that time; being the fifth album is a quirk of timing; and recording the album in 5 days… well, actually, that is something pretty special.
The 10 songs of Lovers and Leavers were not only recording over a 5 day period but they were tracked live, which means what we are hearing is literally the sound of a group of musicians playing songs together. Given that Carll has done away with the country-rock that marked his previous records, instead approaching the songs as a country-folk singer-songwriter, this approach to recording has left the sparse and spacious arrangements feeling warm and organic. With every song featuring one, if not two, co-writing credits it’s not clear how autobiographical and confessional the album is, but Carll has said “I felt vulnerable in a way that I hadn’t in a long time” and that Lovers and Leavers is “a reflection of a specific time and place” so it is probably safe to say that the upheavals in his professional and personal life have informed the writing on show here.
Sake of the Song, with its refrain of “do it all for the sake of the song” hints at autobiographical origins, as does Good While It Lasted which laments past failures and indiscretions. The Love That We Need charts the dispassionate dissolution of a relationship which paints quite a bleak picture, leaving one hoping that it isn’t confessional although it feels all too honest. Despite its Spartan and melancholic arrangement, The Magic Kid manages to impart a hopeful optimism by telling the story of a father watching his 9 year old son putting on a magic show.
For all the strong musicianship, lyricism, and production on display, Lovers and Leavers ends up feeling a little samey, with each song sounding exactly how you’d expect a country-folk song to sound; finger-picked or lightly strummed guitar, sparse drumming, and smooth basslines. Some will like the continuity, but for me it acted to diminish the emotional impact and progression of the album. With Lovers and Leavers Hayes Carll has shown that he can do folk infused country, it’s just a shame he didn’t avail himself of more of the sonic territory available to him with this outing.