Best of the Decade: Time (The Revelator) by Gillian Welch
Time (The Revelator)
by Gillian Welch (Acony)
The end of a decade by nature puts one in a reflective mood (ask any newspaper assignment editor prepping retrospective features to pad the holiday editions). The request to name a favorite album from that 10 year span makes reflection mandatory. History will eventually have its say on what the “Aughties” were about – rampant excess or the consequential economic collapse? Or both? – but there are many ways to judge the most significant record of the decade: The biggest selling, the most innovative, the most influential.
My choice was not even close to the biggest selling, nor the most innovative (unless you consider making records like they did 50 years ago innovative, which is a fair point), nor the most influential (although it certainly influenced me). I can’t call this any other way than to summon to mind the record that meant the most to me at what for me will be the most personally significant period in the last decade. A collection of songs does not always announce its value upon first hearing. Sometimes the merit of a particular record is initially unrecognized by individuals or the masses. Maybe in those cases, the artist is so far ahead of the curve, it takes a while for the rest of us to catch up. Or maybe records are like notes shoved into a bottle and tossed out into the ocean. Someone either finds it and finds meaning in it, or the song bobs around in the water unclaimed and we wander on, ignorant of what we may have missed.
In the early part of this decade, I was at a career crossroads. It was dispiriting to ponder (and still chilling to recall) that futility and the realization that the investment of energy and imagination that had gone into work was evaporating. To put it more simply, it seemed choices were narrowing – stick around an increasingly bleak environment, muddle through, and wait for the axe to fall. Clearly, the path I’d chosen up until that time, which seemed like an ideal way to find fulfillment and earn a living, wasn’t working out. As wrenching as that could be, there was another option – leave on your own terms – and an even darker personal consideration: What do I do next?
Looking at the timing, I must have had Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) in hand in 2001, slightly before this period, but I’m not sure the full force of the record’s statement hit me until I found myself in that vertiginous state of uncertainty. My files indicate that in March, 2000, I reviewed for No Depression a performance Welch gave with Ani Difranco and Greg Brown at Toronto’s Massey Hall, and the then-unreleased title song made enough of an impression on me that I referenced it favorably. But as my mind hardened around the notion of finding something else to do with my life, Time (The Revelator) was the record I returned to.
Sitting at my work desk, headphones on, the clarity of Welch and partner David Rawlings’ guitars and voices and simple folk melodies whispering in my ear camouflaged a message that seemed freighted with all the intimidating choices I faced. “I could get a straight job, I done it before,” Welch sang. “Never minded working hard, it’s who I’m working for.” Well, yeah.
If “Everything Is Free” captured the exhilaration and terror of being unmoored from the source of comfort or livelihood (and I understand around this time, Welch and Rawlings became similarly unmoored from their label home at Almo), then “Elvis Presley Blues” was an elegant consideration of work for work’s sake. The song compares the early Elvis who seemed to hurl himself unselfconsciously and recklessly into the world and in so doing changed the world forever, to steel driving John Henry, who relished pounding rails and died with his hammer in his hand. The moral of the story is both men were compelled, even fatally compelled, to their take up their calling by something other than a simple career considerations.
The songs on Time (The Revelator) didn’t make up my mind for me. But they did provide a balm and it certainly helped me get to the other side of that challenging period, which I should say opened up a new career path and has to date been extremely positive and rewarding.
I could rhapsodize about the elegance of Welch’s and Rawling’s sublime harmonies or the mastery of songcraft (“Dear Someone” still sounds like a sweetheart ballad from a century ago) or Rawlings’ searching solos or the uncommonly warm way the album was recorded. All of those things might have made it a valued work of art. But Time (The Revelator) is my album of the decade because it arrived at the exact moment I needed it, even though I had no way of knowing that at the time.