Gillian Welch’s rich harvest – more than worth the wait
The Harrow and the Harvest
By Gillian Welch
Review by Doug Heselgrave
Ok – let’s get the cliché that’s been bandied about in the press for the last month or so out of the way – eight years is a heckuva long time to wait for a new record from an artist who had hitherto released at least an album a year for her growing number of fans to enjoy. But, to say that ‘The Harrow & The Harvest’ has been more than worth the wait would be the understatement of the year.
The review copy of Gillian Welch’s new album couldn’t have come through my mailbox at a better time. I’d spent the last two weeks restlessly fast-forwarding my way through stacks of CDs to find that nothing was sticking with me. Every attempt to write about any of these listless records drew a blank. But, since ‘The Harrow & The Harvest’ arrived, I’ve heard these ten new songs at least a dozen times each, and I’m getting nowhere near to feeling tired of any of them. In fact, they sound better every time I hear them.
It’s not as if Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have maintained a low profile since ‘Soul Journey’ came out in 2003 – they’ve continued to tour regularly and have appeared on a dizzying array of other people’s albums in the last few years. Artists from Bright Eyes to the Decembrists have benefited from their truly unique ancient modern sound. People have speculated that Welch’s well had run dry – that the alt. country sound that was so fresh at the turn of the century had become old for her and that she was seeking to redefine herself as an artist. Others had speculated that personal or health problems had derailed Welch’s and Rawlings’ backroads journey through new old weird American music. I don’t know and I don’t really care if any of these rumours have any truth to them – what I do know is that ‘The Harrow & The Harvest’ is the best record I’ve heard so far this year.
From the opening lyrics of the first track, ‘Scarlet Town’ that testify ‘you slept on a feather bed, I slept on the floor, now I don’t’ mind a lean old time or drinking my coffee cold, but the things I seen in Scarlet Town did mortify my soul’ – it’s obvious that Welch is back with a vengeance. Those with an autobiographical bent in their songwriting analysis could speculate that the above lines express her disillusionment with fame and the music business to help explain why we’ve all been waiting so long for this record. Whether this is true or not, a single dip into the purple melancholy of ‘Dark Turn of Mind’ or the On the Beach era slow motion torpor of ‘The Way It Will Be’ is enough for us to forget how long it’s been since we’ve heard Gillian sing. Music imbued with this much power and grace is worth any wait.
For those who don’t like surprises, the couple’s trademark sound is still intact and solid as ever– the dance between Gillian and David’s guitars is still enough to make a person dizzy and their harmonies are still deep, profound and magical. If anything, the sound they conjure comes at us in a more loose-limbed and natural manner than ever before. The ten new songs are as good as you could ever hope they’d be with both Gillian and David sounding at the top of their game and playing with a confidence that only artists who have nothing to prove can muster.
The music, melodies and instrumentation hearken back to the layered string sound of ‘Time the Revelator’ rather than the more open-ended structures of ‘Soul Journey’ and even with the lack of drums – which added some punch to songs like ‘Miss Ohio’ on the latter effort – the listener is never left wanting as the guitars’ beautiful melodies effortlessly carry each song.
As ever, those who like to play musicological games will have fun recognizing the quotes and melodic phrases from Ralph Stanley, Dock Boggs and Neil Young amongst others that weave in and out of these songs to give them a timeless quality. Gillian’s still referencing lyrics from past masters as songs like ‘Six White Horses’ beautifully demonstrate, but this time around there is greater weight and maturity to her intersections of the ancient and modern. On this song and many more, Welch continues to use the frameworks of old songs to give new perspectives to modern problems. Perhaps the best example of this aesthetic is ‘The Way it Goes’, a song that explores how sometimes it is necessary to move out of destructive situations to save oneself. In this song about drug abuse and the pain of moving on, the narrative moves from a once removed distance at the beginning of the narrative when Welch sings ‘she and I were friends’ to a gradually more intimate ‘we were all friends’ to an inescapable perspective that ends with ‘you and I were friends’, suggesting that as much as we are all separate beings, it is our suffering that binds us together.
Never a lightweight, these new songs demonstrate that Welch has matured as a songwriter to deliver lyrics that sound less self-conscious or labored than they occasionally did in the past. Her mastery of the language and idioms of the arcane Americana that she so obviously continues to love resonate more convincingly than they ever have before. Welch’s blending of folk and literary images and traditions is risky, but on song after song she manages to evoke an unbroken train of heartache and regret that draws power from imagined histories in a way that is deeply satisfying without ever becoming pretentious. ‘The Harrow & The Harvest’ as the album’s title suggests, is a record in which the artists offer songs that balance – however ruefully – the good with the bad to finally accept life in all of its varied and troubling contradictions.
‘The Harrow & The Harvest’ is quite simply the best album of the year so far.
Available June 28th.
This review appears in a slightly different form at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com