What It Is (Dualtone)
Reviewed by Doug Freeman, Fri., March 22, 2019
Hayes Carll pulled a magic trick with 2016's Lovers and Leavers, an unexpected turn of sincere meditations on fatherhood and divorce. That album broke from the clever-cloaked, smirking anthems the local songwriter had ridden to national notoriety, proving he could pull beyond sly puns and parodies. It was personal, real. Sixth LP What It Is slides back to more comfortably coy terrain for Carll, kicking off with the winking "None'ya" and honky-tonk boogie of "Times Like These." The Texan swings his sarcasm like a scythe, but more than a touch of his new sincerity still seeps out from the edges of funkier, uptempo arrangements and sharp hooks barbed into his singable melodies. Songs such as "Be There" and "I Will Stay" split the difference, laced with impeccably smart one-liners that still ring with an emotional reality, even as "Things You Don't Wanna Know" and "If I May Be So Bold" deliver classic Carll romps, and "Wild Pointy Finger" somewhat bewilders. The velvet portrait dichotomy of "Jesus and Elvis" revels in Carll's keen eye for cultural ironies, set against the social critiques of "American Dream" and brooding "Fragile Men." Hayes Carll may forever swing between his impulses, but he's come to fully embrace What It Is.