Album Review of "By the Way, I Forgive You" by Brandi Carlile

Master Brandi: Zen and the Art of Forgiveness

How much is Brandi Carlile's new album about forgiveness? And how much is it about something bigger? 

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By the Way, I Forgive You

Learn more about Brandi Carlile, listen to By the Way, I Forgive You, and read additional reviews.

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Master Brandi: Zen and the Art of Forgiveness

This is a transcript of Ep. 21 of the What's This Album About? podcast

Hi everybody! I'm Bobby Waller, host of What’s This Album About?—the podcast that dives deep into the lyrics of today's best songwriters. 

On this show, we're always looking for albums with unique central themes, so imagine my excitement when I found out that Brandi Carlile’s new album is about forgiveness. No other high profile release since we've existed has had that central theme. I was so excited, in fact, that at the end of our last show, I announced with absolute certainty that the next album we’d be covering is Brandi Carlile’s By The Way, I Forgive You

           ♪  By the way, I forgive you

And then I listened to the album and frankly, I was perplexed to find that fairly little of it is explicitly about forgiveness. Only three of the album’s ten songs have some form of the word forgive in the lyrics, and very few of the tracks are centrally about forgiveness. 

So what would I do? Would I go back on my word and not cover By The Way, I Forgive You? After all, if an album doesn’t have a central theme, it’s not really gonna work for a show called What’s This Album About?  Or would I go ahead and cover it anyway because, on closer examination, it really does have a central theme, maybe not forgiveness per se, but something bigger than forgiveness, something that forgiveness could be considered a subset of—something that is known in Zen Buddhism as wu nian, often translated in English as “non-attachment.”  

But first, let’s look at the ways this album really is about forgiveness in the conventional sense of the word. 

           ♪  By the way, I forgive you
                 After all maybe I should thank you
                 For giving me what I've found
                 Because without you around
                 I've been doing just fine
                 Except for anytime I hear that song

This is Track 1, “Every Time I Hear That Song.” Carlile sings it from the perspective of someone who was wronged by another and who has decided to let go of the hard feelings that resulted from the wrongdoing. It’s consistent with’s definition of forgiveness, which is the act of “(ceasing) to feel resentment against an offender.” This, I believe, is what most people are thinking about when they hear the word forgiveness

It’s also not exactly ubiquitous in By The Way, I Forgive You. But, to be fair, it does pop up from time to time—as on Track 8, “Most of All.” 

           ♪  But most of all
                 He taught me to forgive
                 How to keep a cool head
                 How to love the one you're with

Here in the first verse, Carlile expresses gratitude toward her father for teaching her how to forgive. In the second verse, she sings about her mother teaching her how to fight. So the song is only half about forgiveness, but that counts. 

And then there’s Track 9, “Harder to Forgive”…

           ♪  Sometimes I pretend we never met
                 Because it's harder to forgive than to forget

…where Carlile asserts that it’s sometimes easier to forget than to forgive. 

But, really, that’s about it. Those three songs are the only songs on the entire album that include a form of the word forgive in the lyrics. Forgiveness, in the conventional sense at least, just doesn’t get a lot of play on By The Way, I Forgive You.  

But what if Carlile isn’t thinking about forgiveness in a conventional sense?  What if, instead of looking for forgiveness itself, we look for signs of a forgiving attitude—the mental/emotional/spiritual disposition that makes forgiveness possible? Well, then we’re looking for that quality known in Zen as wu nian.

The literal translation of wu nian is “no thought,” but the doctrine of wu nian doesn’t imply that we should have no thoughts. That would be impossible. Instead, it’s meant more like we might use it in the phrase, “Give it no thought.” It means not dwelling on thoughts. It means having thoughts and emotions but letting them go. It’s not forgiveness per se, but it’s the disposition that makes forgiveness possible, and that disposition is all over By The Way, I Forgive You

Take Track 4, “The Mother,” for example. 

           ♪  Welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind

“The Mother” is a heartfelt ode that Carlile wrote to her now four-year-old daughter Evangeline. And while I’d be hard-pressed to argue that it’s about forgiveness, I can definitely see how it’s an expression  of wu nian—the disposition of non-attachment that makes forgiveness possible.

           ♪  The first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep
                 She broke a thousand heirlooms I was never meant to keep
                 She filled my life with color, canceled plans, and trashed my car
                 But none of that was ever who we are

So Evangeline robbed Carlile of sleep, broke some physical possessions, and littered her car. Did Carlile really have to forgive Evangeline for those things? Remember that the dictionary definition of forgiveness involves resentment over an offense. And while I guess you could say that breaking heirlooms is kind of an offense, most loving parents file that into the category of “just what kids do.” They don’t resent their toddlers over it, so there’s nothing to forgive. And, of course, that’s Carlile’s point here. Our children can certainly be frustrating on some level. Carlile doesn’t deny that frustration. But she doesn’t dwell on it, either. Instead, she voices an implicit appreciation to Evangeline for helping her overcome her attachments to sleep and material objects and tidiness, all those things that as Carlile puts it, "were never who we are.” 

           ♪  Because I am the mother of Evangeline

We find a similar attitude of wu nian, or non-attachment, on Track 7 “Sugartooth.”

           ♪  He was born with a sweet tooth he couldn't  beat
                 Always trying to find himself something sweet

In “Sugartooth,” Carlile sings about a kid she knew in high school who developed a drug addiction from which he never recovered. She never mentions a particular offense he committed against her, nor any resentment toward him that she had to overcome and so, again, it’s hard to see where any forgiveness takes place, really. However, it’s easy to see how Carlile has an attitude of wu nian here.

           ♪  There's no point now to judge him in vain
                  If you haven't been there, you don't know the pain

Because while others might speak of addicts with judgment, Carlile is unattached to such negative and limiting thoughts, instead speaking of her peer with unabated compassion—a cardinal virtue in both Buddhism and the Christian faith in which Carlile was raised. 

           ♪  A slave to a sugartooth

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Carlile and her co-writers, long-time collaborators Phil and Tim Hanesworth, were directly influenced by Zen Buddhism when they wrote this album. They probably weren’t. But the Zen concept of wu nian—non-attachment, letting go—does give us a framework for understanding how this album that has been marketed as an album about forgiveness but rarely mentions forgiveness explicitly may, in the end, have some pretty formidable things to say about forgiveness. Because whether or not Carlile always connects the dots between offender, offendee, and the cessation of resentment, By The Way, I Forgive You is, from start to finish, a clear and heartfelt testament to the power of letting go. (Cue Track 2: The Joke)

           ♪  Let 'em live while they can.
                 Let 'em spin. Let 'em scatter in the wind.
                 I have been to the movies. I've seen how it ends,
                And the joke's on them

Thanks for listening to What’s This Album About?—the podcast that dives deep into the lyrics of today’s best songwriters. I have no idea which new album we’re going to review next time around, but if you have any suggestions, drop us a line. We’d love to hear from you. Until then, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to let it go. And keep your ears open because the more you listen, the more you love