[7 July 2011]
Once people fall for Gillian Welch’s music, they tend to fall hard. A fierce brand of loyalty establishes itself not so much around how or why Welch and partner David Rawlings may be better than other performers in the country/folk/roots/old-time/Americana scenes, but rather around more insular questions regarding the comparative merits of particular Welch albums. It’s the kind of debate that often plays itself out while waiting for a favorite artist to release new material and, while the Dave Rawlings Machine released A Friend of a Friend (an album on which Welch appeared) in 2009, it’s been eight long years since Welch’s last. When it comes to the comparison game, it is that album, Soul Journey, and its predecessor, 2001’s Time (The Revelator), that are most frequently mentioned.
Both albums are typically seen to be game-changing evolutions of the template Welch and Rawlings essayed on their first two albums. The most obvious points of comparison relate to instrumental style, with Time (The Revelator) focusing on the tried-and-tested formula of Welch’s old-time voice and Rawlings’s intricate guitar-work, and Soul Journey employing a full band with drums and electric guitars. But the differences were more profound than that, for reasons easily connected to the albums’ titles. In a mysterious, unfathomable, but instinctively recognizable way, the songs on Time (The Revelator) played with time itself, expanding it and shrinking it, allowing short tracks to seem epic and epic tracks to fly by in an instant. There was a trance-like quality to the music which suggested that the songs were reaching for some kind of mystical bond. Welch’s music had always sounded old—from the opening chords of her debut album Revival in 1996 onwards—but there was something more here, something cosmically ancient. Soul Journey, meanwhile, evoked space and movement with its beautifully-paced mini road movies, lovesick daughters, Dead Heads, and Dylanesque wild mercury sounds. At the same time, both albums defied simple classification, showing instead the ways in which time opens into space and vice versa. However interpreted, they set the bar for subsequent Welch/Rawlings output as high as it could be.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that Internet buzz around the new Gillian Welch album has taken the form of a hope for (or, for those who have already heard it, a reflection on) its status vis-à-vis those two landmark predecessors. With Time (The Revelator) most often featuring as fan favorite, the news that The Harrow & The Harvest would be acoustic—just Welch, Rawlings, guitar, banjo, harmonica, and voices—was greeted by many as a return to the style of the 2001 album. The first thing that needs to be asserted about the new work, then, is that it’s not “Time (The Revelator) Part II”. If it’s a return to anything (and there’s no need for it to be, of course), it’s to the world of the early albums. To say this is to reiterate the point that the worlds that Welch and Rawlings summon up cannot be reduced to instrumental features, to some imagined authenticity attached to being unplugged and underdubbed. It’s worth remembering that both Revival and Hell Among The Yearlings came with generous doses of electric guitar, drums, and organ. What makes me hear “Orphan Girl” as an eerie, early, Carter Family-style narrative, what keeps it that way in the confused folds of my memory, is the world it evokes through its lyrical imagery and Welch’s older-than-the-century voice. That its power is actually strengthened by the addition of Rawlings’s electric guitar and T-Bone Burnett’s Optigan, is a fact that I have to deal with afresh on each return to the actual recording. What is so clever, so affecting, about Welch and Rawlings is the way in which they fold worlds and eras into each other, sometimes so well that you don’t even notice they’re doing it (perhaps the reason why Soul Journey is thought of as the “electric album” is that, for once, it was impossible not to notice).
New song “Silver Dagger” offers a playful demonstration of the type of game Welch/Rawlings like to play with time references. The song’s tune comprises typical Carter Family decasyllabic quatrains, the kind that would morph into twentieth century classics such as “You Are My Sunshine” and “This Land Is Your Land”. Having established the basic structure of the lyric over two verses, Welch begins a line in the third verse with the words “In Nineteen Hundred…”. The break that falls between each five-syllable block allows just enough time for the historical reference to sink in before Welch concludes the line: “...and Ninety-Nine”. The post-Dylan harmonica blurt that follows only adds to the sense of temporal disorientation set up between words, voice, and musical style. It’s a typical Welch moment, and equally typical of her to give this original composition the same title as a traditional ballad made famous in the ‘60s by Joan Baez.
Throughout its ten songs, The Harrow & The Harvest locks into oldness and Americana but largely avoids the spiritual or mystical yearning of Time (The Revelator). There’s little initial sense of mysticism beyond the cover, with its superficial similarities to Joanna Newsome’s Ys and some of the freak folk albums of recent years. There’s something of the Old Weird America to the album, but arguably just as much of the not-so-old, not-so-weird Americana of the ‘60s and ‘70s as represented by Baez, the Band, Neil Young, and the acoustic Dead.
All of which is fine, for we wouldn’t want or need every outing to be a journey into the mystic. What we have instead are ten more examples of what make Welch & Rawlings great: high lonesome harmonies, beautifully judged musicianship, exquisite songcraft, and a relationship with tradition that is both serious and playful. The duo’s playfulness has already been alluded to. The other qualities are evident from the first notes of album-opener “Scarlet Town”, Rawlings’s lead guitar running around Welch’s rhythm and providing sideways motion to this otherwise straight-ahead narrative of woe. The rhythmic style and lyric call to mind places from other folk narratives: “Nottamun Town”, in the traditional song made famous by Bert Jansch, or Steve Earle’s “Taneytown”. You just know no good will come of the characters. And so it goes, though it’s unclear whose fate is being described, that of the singer (who seems to be narrating from beyond the grave) or her cruel lover.
The same awareness of fate that drove so many of those old ballads, and that howls like a bitter wind through the Carter Family’s repertoire, informs many of the songs on The Harrow & The Harvest. Indeed, one way to read that title (beyond the very tempting connection to a certain Neil Young album) is as a recognition of the cyclical inevitability of the seasons, of sowing and reaping, the rewards and punishments wrought by time. It’s there in “Scarlet Town”, in the symmetric structure of “Silver Dagger”, and most of all in the titles of three songs, “The Way It Goes”, “The Way the Whole Thing Ends”, and “The Way It Will Be” (the latter a song previously performed as “Throw Me a Rope” and absolutely saturated in the mellow vibes of acoustic Neil Young). At the same time, there is a yearning quality to Welch’s vocals, a gospel-flecked soaring that lifts the singer out of the song and that signals hope and faith in something other than cruel destiny, a recognition that singing one’s blues is the first step to defeating them.
“It’s beefsteak when I’m working / Whiskey when I’m dry / Sweet heaven when I die,” sing Welch and Rawlings on the album’s centerpiece, the six-and-a-half minute “Tennessee”. These lines, soaked in the comforts and hopes of centuries of folk songs and religious hymns, act as refrain for a slow-paced narrative that recalls Townes Van Zandt’s “Rake”, the whole combining to form a mature tale of age, experience, and expectation. Here Welch’s late style (the age that has always shown itself in the grain of her voice) meets the late reflection of classic blues and country. The slow pace continues with “Down Along the Dixie Line”, featuring the album’s most sublime harmonies. The song’s intro, a masterpiece of understated lead guitar, proves that Rawlings knows as much about the power of simplicity as he does about dexterity on the fingerboard. Silence has always been an expertly-wielded tool in the Welch & Rawlings soundworld and nowhere is it used better than here. As the title suggests, there’s more than a touch of Jimmie Rodgers on offer, especially in the nostalgic image of the South, its old trains and wailing drivers.
For me, the greatest song on The Harrow & The Harvest is “Hard Times”, another tradition-referencing lament that drifts between fateful loping and heartfelt striving. Over a skeletal banjo, Welch narrates the tale of a “Camptown man” and his mule working stubbornly against the mechanization of a “mean old world”. The man’s determination to get to Heaven in his “own sweet time” is echoed in the song’s refrain, “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more”. Man and mule give up in the end but, crucially, the singer takes up the yoke, calling on her listeners to join her in her stand. Here again, it is the singing of the song that sounds the peal of victory over fatalism, Welch’s voice soaring through the refrain in its search for higher ground
During the Americana boom that Welch and Rawlings emerged from in the ‘90s and which took a variety of forms (trad. folk, alt. country, No Depression, etc.), certain precursors were repeatedly summoned: the Carters, the Band, the Harry Smith-inspired folk revivalists of the ‘60s, Neil Young, the Dylan of John Wesley Harding. While any comparison can only ever be partial and provisional, perhaps that Dylan album provides as good a reference point as any for The Harrow & The Harvest. JWH was, after all, a double-faced beast, both a retreat from the stylistic adventures of Dylan’s wild mercury years and an invitation to re-examine territory we thought we knew, to discover fresh mysteries from the ancient well of tradition. Perhaps H & H operates on similar levels, both a stepping-back from the precipices that the last two Gillian Welch albums approached and a folding-up and compressing of the infinite leaves of the folk tradition, a complex legacy clothed in the sparest of costumes.
“Some girls are bright as the morning”, sings Welch on one song, “and some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind”. Another late missive from one who knows where the time goes, perhaps, but a song of acceptance rather than complaint. And how typical of this young-old singer to hymn the enjoyment in darkness and despair, to see it as a blessing. (And how well that chimes with the recent album by Lucinda Williams, who collects her life-drenched blues under the title Blessed.) The gospel according to Welch and Rawlings is one that embraces darkness alongside light, pain alongside joy, the briar as one with the rose, clear-eyed truth and hazy obfuscation. As a gathering-in of all that’s best about their duality, The Harrow & The Harvest eschews the cosmic Plough and settles instead for the blessings of a more earthly crop.