Photo from Gillian Welch.com.
'Time (The Revelator)' conjures a hazy post-millennial American dream of disappointment and ambition that's disturbed, even shell-shocked, by what it sees and hears.
Exploring the Hazy American Landscape of Welch's Best Album
So there you stand, ready for the end of the world. The End of All Time. That promised moment of revelation and release. (Promised by whom? All sorts of preachers, two-bit prophets, even artists.) Others have foretold The End, be it divine or secular, and their The Ends never came to be. Yours will. You just know it. And what then? Something great, or at least, something different than this.
The time approaches. The wind picks up, but that could be just a coincidence. A train whistle shrieks. Something is happening, you want to believe, and around you the townspeople, the city people—or maybe no one, really; maybe you're alone—hold their breath. Some are muttering through their pinched lips. Some weep. They tilt their heads back, the skin of their necks stretching, and squeeze their eyes shut. The clouds thicken into a quilt, but that could be just a coincidence. The time is nigh.
And then it is passed.
Everyone wears the same bewildered eyes. The questions begin sort of profoundly and devolve into blunt anger: Was that it? The sky still overcast, everyone curses it. They pack up and head home. Back into the woods, into the buildings, back to their jobs and their families, back to their unanswered questions.
You go home, too, and try to sleep. You toss and turn. What are you supposed to do now?
And that's the moment Gillian Welch's Time (The Revelator) begins.
Time (The Revelator) is a summertime record. I listen to it lounging around in what's finally a semblance of heat, but I listen to it driving baked and cracked city roads, too, in those months when everything crawls to a halt. It's not just a rural record, or a Nashville record. To my ears, this collection of songs transcends geographical place; it makes its own place as you listen.
Recorded in April 2001 and released that July, and performed by Welch and her longtime collaborator guitarist/vocalist David Rawlings, Time (The Revelator) is about getting lost. It's a hazy post-millennial American dream of disappointment and ambition that drifts along, disturbed, even shell-shocked, by what it sees and hears. At the same time, there's a yearning on this album so vivid it can make you cry for joy.
An assemblage of interconnected paradoxes and harmonies, Time (The Revelator) depicts "a wheel inside a wheel" like the vision reported by Ezekiel that Welch references in the album's stunning closer, "I Dream a Highway". Spinning on the outside is the nation, an America that has changed drastically over the past century, and maybe not for the better. Inside of that is an individual who's neither hiding in the past nor in the fictional or non-fictional people she sees in that world; she's embodying them, or they are embodying her. Her wheel can't be detached from the nation's. When one wheel moves, the other moves with it.
As tempting as it might be to turn away from the country in which all of these letdowns have happened, Welch grounds Time (The Revelator) in America through the style of the music and words that draw upon the country's official history and its ephemera: forgotten railroad lines and catastrophes, the assassination of the Great Emancipator, the sinking of the Titanic, the death of folk-hero John Henry, the rise and fall of Elvis Presley, and the strands of hundreds of old-time folk, blues, country, and rock 'n' roll songs.
Somehow, the album suggests, these are all connected. The singer wants them to be connected, or feels intuitively that they are, and in songs like "Revelator" and "April 15 Part I", "Ruination Day", "Elvis Presley Blues", and "I Dream a Highway", Welch knits together gossamer strands while Rawlings' deft vocals and sometime ominous, sometimes ecstatic guitar weave around them. Dreamed up into the concrete reality of performances, the recording still sounds like a wayward dream.
For all that the record calls upon the past, it intertwines those strands into an irreducibly present moment. The profoundness of the disappointment is squarely centered on this millennial occasion, and the act of dreaming is an act right now, a reaction to the ginned-up fear and, yes, optimism leading into the year 2000 (even if the millennium proper started in 2001). Flying cars, space travel, a social utopian Land of Tomorrow that would be brought to fruition by technology: you might remember those images of the future as they were once imagined. How far away they are on this record. In 2001 those promises have come up short; no grand vision has been revealed, and so Welch dreams up something different.
The singer looks at herself. And since, musically, to look at herself is to look at her collaborator, they sing together, often in harmonies so close you can't separate them, one more wheel inside a wheel, "a call within a call". They sing of ambition, hope, the future. "I'll go back to Cali," Welch promises herself on "Revelator", after swearing to "leav[e] the valley fucking out of sight." "I want to sing that rock and roll," she shouts halfway through the album. And on "I Dream a Highway," when the singer dreams of going "back to you," it sounds less like a promise to return than a desperate search forward, one filled subdued urgency and, for all the morose anxiety and disappointment, a discreet sense of defiance, even protest.
It's impossible, this album suggests, to separate the individual from the community, or the present from the past. So when Welch does envision the past and American history, it's always from her own subjective perspective. (And the one she creates with Rawlings.) If she'd always felt her music was personal and not merely a re-creation of the past, Welch argued her case more fiercely in interviews around the release of Time (The Revelator). "This album reflects Nashville, April, 2001," Welch told Canadian magazine Exclaim in December of that year. "It's what was going on in my life at that time. It might not seem that way, but I don't care. Of course the songs are personal because I wrote them. It's a funny misconception that people have, and it almost makes me too angry to address it. I never write from the perspective of a character."
This can be a hard pill to swallow on a song like "Red Clay Halo", which seems to be sung from the point of view of a boy who can't get the girls to dance with him because of the mud on his feet. Of course, nothing in the song's lyrics say the boy is indeed a boy. Welch is working ahead of our assumptions, far down the road, wearing multiple layers, clothes and disguises to get at a truth as she sees it, a truth about the country and herself at a certain time in history. The density of those layers and strands, the difficulty of disentangling them—this is what gives Time (The Revelator) its mystery and massive scope, as massive as the landscape of any dream or vision can feel. It's an ambiguous place, and the risk is in getting lost.
There's something to be said for getting lost, though. And for disappointment. Old obligations fall away. The freedom to be what you please, not what is expected of you, becomes a startling possibility.
Prior to the release of Time (The Revelator), the music world thought it had a pretty good handle on Welch. The most favorable version of the story was that she brimmed with songwriting talent and a stunning Appalachian voice that harmonized sublimely with Rawlings' voice; together they made music that conjured up America's past. The usefulness of that was never really explained. The least favorable take on Welch and her music rested on the jarring anachronism of her music and the details of her biography: though she sang songs that sounded like they could have been recorded during the Dust Bowl (a lazy journalistic trope if ever there was one), she was the college-educated daughter of television writers who raised her in California. She'd gone to a music program, no less! In the eyes of some, these factors combined to make her inauthentic, which in nearly every musical genre is a condemnation.
So what does Welch do? In the first line of the first song on Time (The Revelator), she greets you in a voice so laconic, so sleepy, you can miss the wink and the warning.
Darling, remember when you come to me
I'm the pretender; I'm not what I'm supposed to be
Over and over again, from song to song, Welch questions identity and its veracity. "Revelator" is ambiguous; in "Red Clay Halo," identity as its perceived by others is a trap. The ambition of the songs' narrators is to be more than they are, to discover what's left for them in this wreck of a country. I wish, I want, they sing. If only one day…. "I wished I played in a rock and roll band," she sings on "April 15, Part I", after which she and Rawlings harmonize on a dream about rock and roll…while performing at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
On Time (The Revelator), Welch found a new writing voice by complicating her lyrical imagery and musical form. Instead of using a more contemporary language or more robust and recognizably contemporary arrangements—anything to put some distance between her and her detractors—Welch doubled down on what she and Rawlings do best: sparse arrangements, close harmonies, and sometimes obvious, oftentimes buried musical and historical references.
All of these were taken even further into a realm of ambiguity, however. Sounding nothing like a rejection of the old-time folk music which had so clearly influenced the original songs of her first two records, Revival and Hell Among the Yearlings, this album is nonetheless a parting of ways with the rigidness that a blind-faith allegiance to genre can bring out in those who perform old-time music, in whose hands and throats the past freezes so much it becomes brittle, see-through, a place where nothing is confusing or complicated, where there is no debate, just the common consensus, the traditional view.
By stitching together so many references and calling them by name, Welch dispenses with any easy speech about authenticity and identity. How can we talk simply about either when half of who we are is borrowed from others, when what we are is the embodiment of those who have come before us? When you think of the people who have influenced you (and their authenticity), people whom you have never met, people who barely graced your life, you might just begin to think that identity is never singular, it's plural. And on this record, Welch says just that.
Who we are, especially now, post-millennium, is a site of conflict, always shifting, always malleable. Authenticity is just holding yourself accountable to the truth you believe about yourself.
And isn't that freeing?
Well, it depends who you ask.
And so this hazy American daydream speaks not only to the collective, official vision of the country's history, but also to Welch's version of that story as it continues to be lived. Nashville in spring 2001 sounds like it becomes all of America for Welch. Whether they mean to or not, every American artist tells his or her version of the American story; whether it's framed that way explicitly or implicitly, whether it's intended or not, it's inevitable. And it's inevitable that some versions are more compelling than others.
Time (The Revelator) is compelling for a number of reasons. For me, it's a hypnotic collection of songs that sounds anchored in place and time but also, every time I hear it, it feels free and mysterious. Nothing is answered, nothing is locked down, and yet, if I were to choose a group of recordings that would explain to someone what America means, this album would be on that list.
For Welch, it was a turning point, far and away better than her previous two albums. Nominated for a Grammy, the album lost to Bob Dylan's majestic and dirty American epic "Love and Theft". You get the sense that without Time (The Revelator), Welch's career might have stalled, and yet the album still looms above the major works she's made since then: the relaxed if terribly-titled Soul Journey (2003), her work with Rawlings in the David Rawlings Machine, and the beautiful The Harrow and The Harvest (2011). She may yet top Time (The Revelator) and she may not, but the album was necessary in order to create those kinds of stakes.
Welch wasn't the only one asking questions about identity and authenticity and she wasn't the only one bothered by the commonplace answers; Dylan's "Love and Theft" revolves around similar issues. But there's not much anxiety in that album, and Time (The Revelator) is soaked in it.
The millennial anxiety that has occasioned Welch's fever dream and the stunned, slow, even stoned pace of that dream's music are what set the album apart and make it totally at odds with the helter-skelter speed of nascent Internet culture and resistant even to the quasi-folk revival of the late '90s and early '00s as typified by the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Each of those social developments promised answers, and whether she was yearning for rock 'n' roll or presciently mourning the decline of an artist actually being able to make money from her work on "Everything Is Free", Welch voices a quiet doubt, a note of dissent and protest as she strives for harmony.
After all, the first sound you hear on Time (The Revelator) is dissonance. Four strums of two notes a half-step apart from each other. The discord is slight, but as each strum happens, as the notes seem to linger above time, you keep waiting, just as you do in life, for the hypnotic suspension to be resolved.