Publicity photo via High Road Touring

Modesty, Melody and Quiet, Reflective Words: Joan Baez’s ‘Whistle Down the Wind’

Released to accompany her last world tour, Joan Baez's latest album avoids sermonizing, approaching current calamities obliquely, gaining power from understatement, and bringing the listener to a calm place.

Whistle Down the Wind
Joan Baez
2 March 2018

Restrained but full of feeling, always in service to the images and emotions of each song, Joan Baez delivers the ten tracks that comprise Whistle Down the Wind with beautiful economy and elegant assurance. Given that Baez has announced that this new record will accompany what’s likely be her last world tour, it’s no surprise that there’s a vaguely valedictory air to the album, which touches some of the concerns that have been constants throughout her storied near-60-year career, one in which art and activism have always been closely intertwined. What’s absent, though, is any sense of grandstanding or any big, forced statements. Rather, Whistle Down the Wind is a beguilingly modest, humble work that wears with disarming lightness Baez’s legendary status, instead placing the focus squarely on the songs.

Indeed, with a title track that once again comes from the pens of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan (this time derived from Waits’s 1992 album Bone Machine), Whistle Down the Wind immediately establishes itself as a companion piece, sonically and spiritually, to Baez’s last album, the Steve Earle-produced Day After Tomorrow (2008). Dispensing with the roots-rock inclinations of 1997’s Gone From Danger and 2003’s Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, the album similarly sustains a mellow, intimate and almost exclusively acoustic ambiance, with arrangements based around guitar, bass, organ, and piano.

That being said, the new record arrives into a very different cultural and political landscape than Day After Tomorrow, which was released on the cusp of the Democrats’ win ten years ago. Whatever the compromises and shortcomings of Barack Obama’s tenure thereafter – and Baez, with her intelligent skepticism about party politics, has not shied away from expressing a number of “gripes” about it – that moment of optimism and possibility already seems very far away.

However, with the exception of one song choice – Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace”, about the 2015 Charleston church shooting – Whistle Down the Wind avoids overt contemporary references, preferring to address current calamities obliquely. Notably, Baez doesn’t include “Nasty Man”, the Trump-baiting exercise that she penned after the 2016 election, and which generated much attention online. It’s a wise decision overall, allowing the album to avoid the pitfalls of obvious sermonizing. Baez draws here on the words of songwriters whose work she’s turned to before in recent years – along with Waits and Brennan, songs by Josh Ritter, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Eliza Gilkyson, and Joe Henry (who takes on producing duties this time around) are included – while also adding in a couple of voices new to her repertoire (Mulford, Anohni). It’s a pretty diverse list, but, as usual, Baez succeeds in elegantly making each song her own, and the album into a cohesive artistic statement.

The title track makes for a warmly enticing opener, Baez fully inhabiting the conflicts and regrets of a narrator confronting their own timidity, missed chances, and, ultimately, mortality. Baez has called Tom Waits “as exquisitely gloomy as I am” yet the song sounds soothing and accepting here, and it establishes the album’s conciliatory tone. That’s not to say that social consciousness is absent, of course. Anohni’s “Another World” is drained of any hint of preciousness in this account, Baez’s spare reading – just her guitar, and percussion provided by son Gabriel Harris – makes the song both taut and tender. Gilkyson’s “The Great Correction” balances despair and optimism, anticipating a reckoning as it recognizes both “the shadows across this land” and that “the light burns brightest in the darkest times.” The reading of Mulford’s song, with Tyler Chester’s piano work dominating, takes on a hymnal quality that’s touchingly understated, avoiding sententiousness.

The more personal side of the record is also compelling. While the “Oh my darling, oh my love” chorus to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “The Things That We Are Made Of” gets repetitious by the end, the lovely, delicately chiming arrangement does justice to the impressionism of the verses, and, full of quiet reverence, Baez’s delivery of the title is exquisite. The second Waits and Brennan inclusion, “Last Leaf”, gives this ode to endurance a light, wry quality. Set to twangy gut-string guitar, piano, and brushed drums, Henry’s “Civil War” (culled from his 2007 album Civilians) is similarly image-rich, Baez relishing sharp, Dylanesque lyrics such as “every truth carries blame” and “we call our little mob a town”.

The two songs from Ritter are also strong: the first, “Be of Good Heart”, is a wise and kind benediction on the occasion of a lover’s leave-taking; the second, “Silver Blade”, tips its hat to one of Baez’s signature songs yet deftly skirts pastiche in its brisk account of an exploited maid’s revenge on a loathsome “lordling”. The album’s closing track, Tim Erickson’s “I Wish the Wars Were All Over”, also mobilizes folk tropes – a grieving heroine ready to cross-dress and cross the ocean to be reunited with her soldier lover – in its adaptation of an 18th-century text. But Baez, sounding at once weary and hopeful, makes the title an indelible refrain echoing through the ages and resonating now.

Throughout, Baez’s mature voice is a thing of beauty, her “achingly pure soprano” now deepened from its early stark power to a weathered, womanly and perhaps more expressive instrument. Again, the weight of this voice’s history – one that’s sung all across the world, in multiple languages, and been present at pivotal 20th-century events – can be felt, but lightly. Humane and restorative, Whistle Down the Wind is an album that brings the listener to a calm place, reminding us, clearly and simply, of the power of what Peggy Seeger has recently identified as the enduring heart of the ever-evolving folk tradition: “melody and quiet, reflective words”.

RATING 9 / 10