If Townes Van Zandt hadn’t drunk himself to death – or if he was born in the 80s – he’d be doing what Hayes Carll is right now. Pretty much everybody’s favorite outlaw Americana songwriter has a two-night stand coming up at Joe’s Pub on May 16 and 17 at 7:30 PM. Advance tix are $25 and as of today are not sold out, which is especially weird since he usually plays Bowery Ballroom or the Bell House when he’s here in town.
His spare, unselfconsciously haunting latest album, impeccably produced by Joe Henry, is Lovers & Leavers, streaming at Spotify. It kicks off with the aptly desolate Drive, spacious tremolo guitar and organ looming distantly over elegant, skeletally fingerpicked guitar and brushed drums. If the Highwaymens’ albums had an organic feel instead of all those cheesy sythesizers, they would have sounded like this. It’s a bittersweet lament for a restless spirit who can’t be corralled: “Burning both ends of the candle and you pretend that you don’t care.”
Sake of the Song is as much of a shout-out to any down-and-out songwriter as it is a salute to Carll’s brooding road-dog influences, from Hank Williams to Dylan and Elvis and Tom Waits, a gorgoeusly slinky Nashville gothic ballad:
Hitchhike and bus ride and rental cars,
Living rooms, coffeehouses, rundown bars
Ten thousand people all alone under the stars
All for the sake of the song
Good While It Lasted offers a bitter, more personal look at the downside of late-night barroom tunesmithing, part Waits, part Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan. That last muted cymbal hit will rip your face off.
The hushed waltz You Leave Alone is a vivid southern existentialist character study:
One short-term destination
Can lead to a lifetime
Away from home
But no plan’s worth making
All the big dreams are taken
When you leave this world
You leave alone
Withs its lingering pedal steel and melancholy chromatics, My Friends could be John Prine, or the late-90s Jayhawks, or the Walkabouts doing their country thing. Carll brings back the subtle gospel tinges with The Love That We Need, a crushingly sardonic portrait of a marriage that’s lost its lustre. Love Don’t Let Me Down, the album’s title track more or less, has the feel of a lovelorn 60s Don Gibson ballad recast with the spacious, desolate ambience of the album’s opening cut.Likewise, Love Is So Easy is roller-rink soul done as Americana. The album winds up with an a final character study, casting a disconsolate, restless woman as a Jealous Moon. It’s no wonder why Carll likes small venues, considering how well these songs are suited to them.