December 10, 2008
The first couplet of Hayes Carll’s Trouble in Mind is a fitting introduction to a common man’s intellectual. On the arresting “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” he croons, “I’ve got a woman, she’s wild as Rome/She likes to lay naked and be gazed upon.” In just a few short strokes, he’s proclaimed his love for women and the wilder side of life; what follows is a colorful assortment of songs, largely based on those desires, from a folk psychologist dressed up as a Texas singer-songwriter.
With Trouble in Mind, his first release with Lost Highway and third album overall, Carll’s music evokes the usual suspects in Lone Star musical lore, from Rodney Crowell to Guy Clark. Whether swallowing back the bitter taste of a romance gone sour, or swearing off bad habits of the past, Carll uses his emotional crises as fuel for a set filled with literate songs. On Trouble in Mind, Carll waxes poetic about hot-blooded women and heavy drinking, restless hearts and dashed hopes. His voice isn’t squeaky clean (much like the man), but just a dollop of Carll’s smoky Southern drawl delivers the goods.
On “Sit In With the Band,” a track from his self-released 2005 disc, Little Rock, Carll expressed a need to follow his musical dreams freely, moaning, “I don’t care if it’s backwoods country, I don’t care if it’s rock and roll.” No wonder then that he straddles the lines between rock, country and Americana with impressive dexterity. Amidst a rootsy backdrop of jangly banjo and piercing steel, Carll rattles off quick, clever observations.
These are absorbing songs, often based in dark, dirty barrooms. With “I Got a Gig,” (accented by the whining hum of a harmonica) Carll sings for his supper, literally, as a flailing musician reliant on the restorative powers of liquor and neon lights. “Bad Liver And A Broken Heart,” with its crunchy guitars, is a beer-joint classic, as Carll barely scrapes the words together over a wild six-string lick. And “Wild as a Turkey” furthers his reputation as a free-wheeling smart-aleck.
But Carll’s hubris is tempered by heartbreak; his arrogance blunted by brief moments of uncertainty. This is a man often ill at ease, and his most trusted form of communication seems to be the loose rhythms and tossed-off rhymes that have become his livelihood. He seems fully aware of his faults, and Trouble in Mind is an outlet for any long-standing insecurities. Carll’s gentle cover of the Tom Waits gem, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” relays his fear of middle-aged minutia. And, stung by the gradual loss of his youth, Carll wistfully recalls simpler times on “Faulkner Street.”
These days, he’s either hungover or hung up on restless women. “It’s a Shame” is a rueful, regret-tinged tale of a poisonous romance, while “Beaumont” and “Willing to Love Again” (written with Darrell Scott) find him scrambling for faith after ruined relationships. When he admits, “I feel too much, I protect too much, most times I probably expect too much,” the big secret he’s harbored is made abundantly clear. His sardonic wit serves to relieve his harsher truths. In moments of subtlety, there’s a hint of hurt in his gravelly growl.
But in the end, Carll’s comedy is his tonic. The album’s final track is a side-splitting tale of spiritual conversion. Not intended for rigid religious types, “She Left Me for Jesus” is an absurd piece of narration, as Carll inhabits the role of a clueless loser lamenting his lover’s move towards more divine ventures. An audacious moment, he grumbles about her new “man” and threatens a holy throwdown. His failure to compete with this flawless rival (“She says that He’s perfect, how could I compare?”) ends Trouble in Mind on hilarious heights.
Carll doesn’t pursue perfection on Trouble in Mind, in fact, its stream-of-consciousness style is its one weakness, but a small one at that. Carll neatly balances droll humor with daring self-admissions. The stark reality revealed by Carll speaks to threadbare characters, and his compositions spread their hard-living gospel. Throughout Trouble in Mind, Carll quietly fulfills his potential with potent tell-alls that connect with solitary loners everywhere.