Thursday, January 25, 2024

I am going with Willi Carlisle to a place called Critterland. Join us.


Critterland. 10 songs. Out everywhere on 1/26/2024

For folks who are new to the renegade heartland vibes of Willi Carlisle, I want to introduce you to him and encourage you to listen to him. Now. He offers an Illinois/Kansas/Missouri/Arkansas counterpoint to all the great music currently coming from Kentucky and West Virginia or the always reliable Asheville-to-Nashville-to-Atlanta-or-Austin axis of evil.

For folks new to Willi’s memorable and magnetic voice, he has haunted small clubs and festival fields and Spotify streams for a few years now, and he has slipped comfortably into a faded pair of overalls decorated with the home-made sewn patches of his lineage: from Woody Guthrie to Utah Phillips, from Bob Dylan to John Prine. And likewise, we know Willi is ready to share yet more festival stages -- or breathless phrases of press-agent-ready praise --with his contemporaries, the names like too many colorful stickers decorating a mandolin or fiddle case, names like Jason Isbell or Tyler Childers or Molly Tuttle or Adeem the Artist or Nick Shoulders or Mya Byrne. I could go on.  

Willi’s literate and literary lyrics also make him part of that traveler-meets-treehugger activist-bard lineage that could include Whitman and Kerouac, Thoreau and Snyder.  Even though Carlisle may never have listened to this 90s folk-punk pioneer, he definitely reminds me more of Casey Neill’s 1990s and early 2000s albums than just about anyone I have listened to recently. While this new record is more hoedown than throwdown, the spiritual connection to the tattooed folk-punk traveler lineage cannot be understated. 

In someone else’s otherwise strong review of the new Willi Carlisle record, they say that Critterland is technically not a concept album, maybe because it’s not a seamless narrative for the same protagonist in the same places, maybe because it’s not a folk opera ready for off-Broadway, maybe because it’s not American Idiot with fiddles and banjos. Maybe some might say that Critterland is not a concept album because Willi might have implied as much in the pre-release album-cycle of excellent interviews with independent media that they have been dropping on their socials every day for the last few weeks. 

Yet Critterland is a concept album for the crunchy cottagecore post-apocalypse, but first you must travel every unmarked gravel road to the back of every hippy hillbilly hollow to the gardens and the porch jams and the homemade jam of communal survival,you must travel there with trauma and tragedy and with equal parts ecstasy and joy, despite all the addiction and grief and toxic systems. 

But Critterland is a revelation and a transformation and a collective menagerie of multi-species liberation coming out of our mental and emotional hibernation! Critterland, it’s a DIY acoustic and radically inclusive concept album for me and other counterculture refugees from the South and Midwest and other dirty dirt heartlands that the media says want to kill us. Willi writes such sticks-in-your-gut memorable patch-or-sticker-ready couplets for the ragtag riffraff weirdo choir in the church of wonderment and woe. So many hymns and anthems -- and the entire album is a songbag and songbook, a Rise Up Singing for queer lefty folkies --such countless quotable banners could be strident or cringe with less wise words but in the gentle loving lyrical hands of Willi Carlisle, they are honest and humble and brilliantly boundless and spilling over the brim. 

Critterland collects songs like I collect old rusty metal garbage trinkets on my long walks. Critterland collects memories and metaphors into larger-than-life stories, then makes them sound small and intimate and heartbreakingly relatable. Within the narrative universe of Critterland we find: granny witches and their tinctures; compost piles and mason jars; wheatfields and coal mines; Dungeons & Dragons and unnamed motels; psilocybin and rodeo; heroin and fentanyl; codependency and Al-Anon coins; blame and forgiveness and every intangible emotion placed in a tangible place. These are the sad songs to make you happy because like life, there are dead people and people in active addiction and the inevitably of dead addicts, where, as Will sings, we learn that the proverbial “rock bottom” is really “six feet under.” 

In “The Arrangements,” Willi pours one out for “the bastard,” for a character that appears to be the narrator’s father, finally confessing “I am my own father now.” I don’t know the backstory, and everyone’s is different, but the thing about death and mourning, they are also the common denominators that bind us all together. From the song where he says he is own father now, he also admits he will never father others, in the stunning testimony for remaining forever childless called simply “I Want No Children.” 

Critterland is an audio component to the bursting genre of literary masterpieces, primarily novels, sometimes called rural gothic, sometimes called grit lit, sometimes called hillbilly noir, filled with sensuality and drugs and violence, but always in specific beautiful settings, by authors like David Joy and Bonnie Jo Campbell, I could go on and on. You also see this genre in film and TV in places like Ozark and Winter’s Bone, Breaking Bad, and Bloodlines; the weirder, wilder, dustier, and dirtier, the better. Critterland is a concept album that could include all that. The album’s coda combines song with spoken-word-spit-story, rolling it all up to smoke, making the narrative into a ragged riff on the wild side of the weed world, back when it was more illegal and less socially acceptable. It perfectly captures the hillbilly-meets-hippie paradox to which all these songs are gloriously adjacent. 

Critterland might not be a concept album, but it probably used to be a commune, and one day it could be the alternative entire country and continent that Harry Smith prophesied and Greill Marcus named “the old weird America.” Willi himself describes the denizens of this place from a post on the socials six years ago: “Clowns, drag-queens, punks, weirdos, trad-masters, overeducated floozies, wobbly-grandpa-music lovers, I love you, and can't wait to meet you. I can't wait to see you. I can't wait to work with you. I can't wait until we are all old friends.” The title track opens the album and was the first single released and encapsulates this narrative universe of the concept album, old time music commune, and alternative country. It’s a singalong and a manifesto, and while it may not be utopia, it’s a place I’d rather live than the everyday mundane dystopia that occupies too much of our worlds today.

Even as a seasoned adult with too many t-shirts and receipts, from trying to create our beloved community and finding oneself on the wrong-end of repression and fear, I cling to redemptive hope and joy more than ever before. Like all great mystics and poets before him, Willi Carlisle creates that world by inhabiting the paradox with profound musical and cultural integrity and an unleashed imagination of abundant love. So I don’t know about any of y’all, but I am going to Critterland. Maybe I’ll see you there? Andrew/Sunfrog 1/25/2024

No comments: