Emmylou Harris – Wrecking Ball
Though Emmylou Harris new album is titled Wrecking Ball, that could also be the description of the tool Daniel Lanois brings into the producers booth and attacks Harris past efforts with. This album is so unlike Harris other albums that when I played it at a recent backyard barbecue, all eight people there came up to me at some point and said the same thing: This doesnt sound like Emmylou Harris.
When an artist has a history as deep and as long as Emmylou does, breaking expectations can be a smart move. And in this case, Lanois is a brilliant Dr. Frankenstein: He recrafts Harris entire style and turns her into a voice an ethereal, haunting cry in the night, if you will and in doing so creates one of the most notable records of the year.
Harris is an unlikely Bride to Lanois Dr. Frankenstein. Her roots in country-rock begin at the source with her contributions to Gram Parsons GP and Grievous Angel albums. Her 1975 major-label solo debut Pieces of the Sky was a stunningly clear vision, and its influence on No Depression-genre music was tremendous. Her career spans 24 albums and has produced seven No. 1 and 27 Top Ten country hits. At times she has veered back and forth between commercial pop (her trio album with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt) and traditional bluegrass and country. If there was a country artist ripe for recasting, Harris was it.
Lanois begins by throwing out the past entirely and starting with a sound that is more his own than one associated with Emmylou. He is best known for his work with U2 (The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby!), Bob Dylan (Oh Mercy), and two critically acclaimed solo albums. Some will argue that this album sounds more like a Lanois record with Harris in the guest vocalist slot since the production aesthetic dominates everything from Harris phrasing to the way the drums sound. Its as much what he leaves out as the things that are played, Harris herself said after this record was finished.
The album starts off with one of those trademark drum intros, and for the first ten seconds youll be convinced this is the new U2 release. Larry Mullen Jr. does all the drumming and forms a very small combo here with Daryl Johnson and Lanois. The sound is sparse, slow, and deliberate. Lanois technique is more a feat of engineering than production: He attempts to put as much voice as possible on tape, so much so that he lets us hear breathing between singing. The effect is a strikingly intimate sound that strips Harris bare, down to the emotion she brings to each song.
Emmylou is a perfect candidate for this treatment because shes more an interpreter than a songwriter (many songwriters would balk at having their tunes tempered by the producers fetish). Her greatest skill may be at picking just the right songs to cover, and this grouping may be her best hand to date: covers of Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Steve Earle (all of whom contribute backing vocals), plus Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. The take on Dylans Every Grain of Sand stands out: Heres an artist who has been covered to death, with almost every cover losing out to the original for passion, but Lanois recasts the song as a waltz, and Harris stunning vocal challenges you to ever listen to Dylans version again.
Lucinda Williams Sweet Old World offers more insight into Lanois technique. He takes this melancholy tune and stretches it from the four minutes of Williams take to a full five-minute anthem simply by adding pauses and letting the vocals draw out to their limit. Overall, the album is as slow and as haunting as the Twin Peaks soundtrack or the best work of the Cowboy Junkies. Harris describes it as being about yearning. Trying to fill that emptiness within ourselves.
Harris wisely chooses to go with her collaborator rather than fight him, and its not surprising that the standout track is a tune also written by Lanois, Where Will I Be. Over rambling lyrics about addiction and the future, Harris adds melody (her part in the puzzle) that, because of the simple setting, is all the more poignant. Lanois production can overwhelm the meaning and story of the songs here he turns every number into tragedy but the songs are properly selected, and it is a sweet death, one that goes down easy.
Country radio I predict will run with hands over ears, as if this album is heresy. Like Johnny Cashs American Recordings, this is haunting stuff and not likely to help sell boots and hats. Even AAA radio will be hard-pressed to find anything cheery enough to make the morning drive time. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant experiment that succeeds on every level, the kind of album that grows and grows on you the more you let go and succumb to Dr. Lanois swinging hypo-watch.