Music

A Wheel Inside a Wheel: Gillian Welch's 'Time (The Revelator)'

Time (The Revelator) conjures a hazy post-millennial American dream of disappointment and ambition that's disturbed by what it sees and hears.


Gillian Welch

Time (The Revelator)

Label: Acony
US Release Date: 2001-07-31
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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

I.

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.

II.

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."

Owls, Aliens, and Others

Essayist Brian Phillips is no staunch empiricist, nor does he want to shatter delusions or expose machinations. In Impossible Owls, he is content to remain in a wide-eyed and owl-ier place.

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