“You know, some girls are bright as the morning/And some have a dark turn of mind,” croons Gillian Welch on the sublime second track on her long-awaited new album, The Harrow & the Harvest. It’s a wryly self-reflexive lyric, for those with even only a nodding acquaintance with Welch’s work will know exactly which kind of girl Welch and partner David Rawlings find it more rewarding to write and sing about. The bleak bent of Welch and Rawlings’s music is perhaps its most defining characteristic: the four albums that the pair have released under Welch’s name since their 1996 debut Revival have focused unflinchingly on themes of loss and loneliness, death and addiction, homesickness and hardship, with the occasional revisionist murder ballad thrown in to the mix. This lyrical subject matter has been matched by mostly stark musical settings that have drawn on country, blues, bluegrass, gospel and other folk forms to forge a highly distinctive kind of American Primitive music, one that reached its apex on 2001’s classic Time (The Revelator), a record widely regarded as the duo’s finest hour.
But crafting tales of whiskey girls and nowhere men, farmers, morphine addicts and miners is hard work, evidently, and Welch and Rawlings hit something of a creative dry spell since the release of 2003’s Soul Journey, a louder, looser offering that expanded their signature sound to included thwacked drums, fiddle and electric guitar and bass, edging some of the tracks towards a Band-era Dylan aesthetic. Nonetheless, Welch and Rawlings have kept up a solid touring schedule in the meantime, as well as guesting on several other records, and in 2009 they finally put out a new album, Friend of a Friend, under the Dave Rawlings Machine moniker. This was a thoroughly charming if somewhat less substantial release that reversed the usual set-up by allocating lead vocal duties to Rawlings, and that also included boisterous contributions from his protégés Old Crow Medicine Show.
It might have been anticipated that Welch and Rawlings would continue the progressive broadening and lightening up of their sound on their new record. But instead The Harrow & the Harvest - a title that rather brilliantly alludes to the album’s rural contexts, its emotional content and its troubled genesis all at once - goes right back to basics, returning the duo to the stripped-down, self-absorbed sound of the earlier work and placing their symbiotic vocal and instrumental interplay front and centre. (The mood is so hushed that when Rawlings wheezes in on harmonica on a couple of the later tracks, it almost sounds like overstatement.) The result, quite simply, is one of the year’s finest albums: at once fresh and familiar, warmer-toned and more immediately accessible than Time (The Revelator), the record boasts beguiling melodies, superb singing, consistently strong song-writing and very cool cover art - adding up to a release that sounds like an instant Americana classic.
The Old, Weird America evoked and excavated in Welch’s work has often felt as much like a metaphorical as a literal or physical space. The new album’s ten tracks are beautifully distilled expressions of that ethos, situated between the ancient and the modern, the mythic and the everyday. Pitching up melodically between Hell Among the Yearlings’ “Caleb Meyer” and “One Morning,” the brisk opener “Scarlet Town” deposits its narrator in a cheerless environment of social inequality and romantic torment, suggesting that good times are not in store. But the song’s bleakness is mitigated, against the odds, by the aforementioned second track, “Dark Turn of Mind,” a gorgeous, spare ballad that’s as invigorating as a night-time stroll and on which Welch’s worldly-wise narrator welcomes in the balm of dark, not day.
Indeed, from limited means, the album achieves a wonderful diversity of tone as it progresses from the sublime, rolling gait of “The Way It Goes,” with its elliptical snapshots of protagonists at pivotal moments of crisis or enquiry, through the heart-warming and redemptive “Hard Times” to the marvellously moody “Tennessee,” a bad-girl-gone-worse ballad that can one can easily imagine turning up on a Marianne Faithfull album very soon. “Of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself/You might be my favourite one of all,” Welch’s infatuated narrator intones, the song leaving the protagonist wiser, perhaps, but unrepentant. Complemented by Rawlings’s soft, reedy tenor and meandering guitar lines, Welch sings more expressively than ever throughout the album and her vocal on this track - an intoxicating mixture of the sultry and the austere - is particularly sublime.
Another highlight is the hypnotic “The Way It Will Be,” a song that Welch and Rawlings have been performing live for a number of years now, and whose trance-like ambience evokes that of several Time (The Revelator) tracks, crawling quietly under the skin in a way that’s creepy and comforting by turns. On the nostalgic “Down Along the Dixie Line,” meanwhile, the protagonist’s despair at finding their route home blocked is cloaked in the gentlest, most enticing of melodies, while “Silver Dagger” (a new song, not the traditional track popularised by Joan Baez) twinkles so fetchingly that it’s only after a few listens that the darkness of the lyrical content becomes apparent. Finally, “The Way the Whole Thing Ends” (have you noticed a pattern developing with some of these song titles yet?) closes the album not with the grand gesture of a track like “I Dream A Highway” but rather with a wry, insouciant shoulder-shrug of acceptance as Welch’s narrator recognises that “That’s the way the cornbread crumbles/That’s the way the whole thing ends.”
As consistently brilliant as it is, The Harrow & the Harvest may still not assuage the doubters who find Welch and Rawlings’s music to be a contrivance: roots music minus the “real” country roots. But, for most, questions of “authenticity” will soon pale when listening to this superb album, a record that, once again, demonstrates Welch and Rawlings’s love and respect for the musical traditions they’ve immersed themselves in. In an era of empty excess, in which an artist's light show can merit more comment than their music, the unadorned, austere approach of Welch and Rawlings’s work feels both bracing and brave. And this deceptively modest yet entirely magnificent new album builds on their past achievements while taking their music forward with impeccable subtlety and grace. Essential.
Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.
Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.