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The trick is called Mercury Aces, and when Eli looked up from the deck at his audience,you could see him savoring our reaction. Carll wrote the song in early 2013 in Nashville with songwriter Darrell Scott. And it felt really good for me to know that he could see how proud of him I was.” is made up of songs that reflect Carll’s own struggles.

“When he was just seven, he told me, ‘I live for the look of amazement on their faces,’ ” says Eli’s father, Hayes Carll, the much-loved Austin singer-songwriter. The first person to hear it outside of the writers’ room was his son. The emotional core of the record—his first in five years, an eternity for a working musician—is the turbulence he’s recently experienced in his personal and professional lives.

And at Galveston’s legendary listening room the Old Quarter, where he opened for acts like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Shake Russell, Willis Alan Ramsey, and Steve Fromholz, Carll quickly learned that the best way to earn attention from an audience that doesn’t know your songs was with humor, often of the self-deprecating variety, both in his songs and in the stage patter between.

On his last record, 2011’s KMAG YOYO, loud and funny came together in the form of a much-quoted declaration: “I’m like James Brown only white and taller/ And all I wanna do is stomp and holler.” The album, named for the classic military acronym “Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re on Your Own,” was pretty much his breakthrough, appearing on best-of-year lists at This year, Lee Ann Womack’s version of a song from the record, “Chances Are,” was nominated for two Grammys.

“This time, I had the songs and said, ‘This is what it is.’ I wish that was something I could have done earlier in my career.” It’s uniformly quiet and mostly acoustic; there are no electric guitars, only a fairly minimal deployment of pedal steel, percussion, piano, and not much else. And there’s nothing remotely like his 2008 song “She Left Me for Jesus,” which may not be the best country song ever written, as Don Imus once suggested, but is certainly one of the funniest.

“I wanted there to be space and room to breathe,” he says. “Writing from a personal place always made me feel really exposed,” says Carll.

One at a time, each card reversed itself, somehow flipping from front to back.

And not long after that, he recognized his career was in coast mode, that however successful playing two-hundred-plus shows a year may have seemed, the sheer repetition of it all had extinguished his curiosity and drive. “I was bored creatively and getting depressed about it.Early in his career, Carll figured out that one way he could maintain an audience was by relying on volume and humor.At Crystal Beach bars, he learned to play loud to get a crowd’s attention and, hopefully, keep them dancing.Carll says a quick follow-up album was tempting, but after leaving his label, Lost Highway—the largely Americana-focused Universal imprint that included Willie Nelson, Ryan Bingham, and Lyle Lovett on its roster before dissolving—and dealing with his impending divorce, time got away from him.Though he worried that fans would forget him if he waited too long, that fear was outweighed by his resistance to making a KMAG YOYO retread.

And not long after that, he recognized his career was in coast mode, that however successful playing two-hundred-plus shows a year may have seemed, the sheer repetition of it all had extinguished his curiosity and drive. “I was bored creatively and getting depressed about it.Early in his career, Carll figured out that one way he could maintain an audience was by relying on volume and humor.At Crystal Beach bars, he learned to play loud to get a crowd’s attention and, hopefully, keep them dancing.Carll says a quick follow-up album was tempting, but after leaving his label, Lost Highway—the largely Americana-focused Universal imprint that included Willie Nelson, Ryan Bingham, and Lyle Lovett on its roster before dissolving—and dealing with his impending divorce, time got away from him.Though he worried that fans would forget him if he waited too long, that fear was outweighed by his resistance to making a KMAG YOYO retread.Making ’em laugh, making ’em cry, and then shifting back felt safe to me.