Another 4-Star Review for Trouble In Mind!
Far too much of the country music coming out today is “successful” in achieving a very limited aim; to be enjoyable by leaning heavily on pop-rock conventions while using the lyrics to vaguely define the emotional point of the song and to provide just enough of a hook for folks to sing to. Hayes Carll’s new record Trouble in Mind on the other hand, isn’t entirely successful, but its aim is far higher; Hayes is trying to really write–which, overall, makes the album a fantastic listen.
In nearly every song there are four or five lines that really grab you, and illustrate Hayes talent at hitting you with concise, impactful, and interesting turns of phrase. There’s something to be said for listening to a writer who is really stretching out and being bold with his writing – by “writing” in this context I mean the conveying of a unique point of view with language that is singularly revealing - and even if Hayes doesn’t always hit home runs, it’s rewarding to listen to him swing for the fences.
And what’s more, he’s having one hell of a good time doing it. Songs like “A Lover Like You”, “I Got A Gig”, “Drunken Poet’s Dream”, “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”, and “Faulkner Street” find Hayes swinging from the chandeliers with his songwriting, surprising and delighting us with his great sense of humor and unique point of view.
Hayes shows us time and again throughout this album that he’s a good writer, but he doesn’t really show us if he’s a good country songwriter. While his songs are full of really satisfying turns of phrase–and often feature touching insights–they lack the focus on a central idea that tends to define great country songs. It’s almost as if he approached these tunes as songwriting exercises; the verses are full of rich lines, and often times there are satisfying hooks, but a fully developed chorus that provides the emotional payoff and conceptual summary of the tune while featuring a caliber of writing that can stand up to the verse is tricky to find.
The album title, for example, “Trouble In Mind,” is a line from the song “Faulkner Street,” but it’s not just any old line; it’s the line that by all rights should be the title line. “Trouble in Mind” clearly establishes what the song is about, and titling it as such would have helped to further focus the song around that central idea, but Hayes thought “Faulkner Street” was a more appropriate entry point into the song for the listener. Which is entirely his prerogative.
It’s possible that it was an artistic decision to leave many of these songs without clear focus, thus allowing the listener to meander around the songs encountering all of the literary gems that Hayes leaves sprinkled throughout the verses. While this is an avant-garde and interesting approach, it causes the songs to suffer by country music standards.
The album lacks cohesion sonically as well. It generally carries a roadhouse singer-songwriter vibe, but the first track, “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” promises a very unique and interesting “Rolling Stones meets Nashville sound”–featuring crunchy and twangy guitar, mandolin picking, fiddle, and steel–that the rest of the album failed to deliver on. Defining a consistent “Hayes Carll sound” throughout the record would have been a big accomplishment and would have done that much more in making this a landmark record.
All and all, the good on this record far, far, far outweighs the bad. In fact, the only reason that I’m giving this one such an analytical look is because it warrants it. Work of serious artistic substance deserves serious listening and serious reflection, and this record is full of very worthy artistic substance.
Hayes Carll has shown that he’s willing to approach the arena where American songwriting legends are made, and more than that, he’s indicated that he may be capable of competing once he’s arrived, but he hasn’t arrived quite yet. You shouldn’t let that stop you from picking this one up though, it’s an excellent record that has made me a Hayes Carll fan, and in a just world, would establish him as a force to be reckoned with on the national scene.