Carlisle challenges country’s macho image with stunning sophomore offering.
Growing up in the rural, small town life of the American Midwest, in Kansas and Illinois, Carlisle’s world was full of juxtapositions. Captain of his football team in high school he was already aware he was gay, and more interested in poetry and singing, and while his initial passion for punk music would take a sudden and surprising u-turn to folk, their shared sensibilities and politics make them closer musical cousins than first glance might suggest. His debut album, ‘To Tell You The Truth’, came out in 2018, and suggested promise with out particularly setting the musical world on fire, with a rather cautious, finding his feet feel about it. However with, ‘Peculiar Missouri’, Carlisle’s stunning sophomore offering there are no such reservations, instead we have an album here that bristles with self confidence, stuffed full of songs that clearly mark him out as one of the finest new songwriters on the current scene.
The album opens with, ‘Your Heart Is A Big Tent’, with a simple arrangement of harmonica and banjo played with an intensity that supports the energy and urgency of the lyrical content. It is clear from the start that Carlisle has something he desperately needs to share, something that’s been held back for too long, like a bird held captive in a cage finally freed, soaring skyward. Repeated listens bring to mind Bruce Springsteen’s debut, ‘Greetings From Ashbury Park’, with the broad lyrical palette shooting out in all direction, like a glorious firework display. The quality continues with track two, the first single from the album, ‘Life On The Fence’, as Carlisle recounts, “What happened in Memphis”. Again here the arrangement is uncluttered, this time with fiddle and pedal steel underpinning the story of a bisexual relationship and, “Why’s living a lie’s more easy than life on the fence?”. Carlisle is a wonderful songsmith with a poet’s heart, but what marks him out as something extra special is not purely his subject matter, though it clearly has an original slant, rather it has as much to do with the honesty and integrity that he delivers each line. There is little held back, and you buy in to every word. Songs like, ‘Tulsa’s Last Magician’, is a masterclass in storytelling, while, ‘Vanlife’, gives a nod to a young Johnny Cash at his most energetic.
In essence these are folk songs in the purest form, mining the same seam as the greats from yesteryear such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Protest songs, but far less fuelled by anger or frustration and more written from the point of, and the pursuit of love. Throughout the whole album Carlisle’s focus is firmly on what unites us rather than what divides. Produce by Grammy Award winning engineer, and Cajun musician, Joel Savoy, the musical arrangements deftly shift to be the perfect conduit for each song, such as the wonderful accordion playing on, ‘Este Mundo’, a cowboy border ballad that instantly transports us to the Tex Mex landscape, while the solo picked acoustic guitar with just the right amount of sustain allows the anthemic message of defiance and bravery on, ‘I Won’t Be Afraid’, to resonate with both hubris and sincerity. The title track, an existential talkin’ blues has just enough of an authentic twist as to avoid any cynicism, which is followed by, ‘The Grand Design’, a plaintive love song that explores the demands and expectations that’s put on the closest relationships, with the banjo again to the fore and just a hint of Jason Isbell on the infectious chorus.
On, ‘Peculiar Missouri’, Carlisle has produced a wonderful album that’s full of intensely personal songs bravely challenging the stereo typical image of the cowboy singer songwriter while still operating within a familiar musical territory. In the short term this is easily one of the finest albums of the year so far, and going forward could very well be an album that will become a touchstone to inspire a whole host of artists in the future.