what “wrecking ball” meant and means
Lately I have been spending time listening to Wrecking Ball, the 1995 cd by Emmylou Harris. I had been a fan of hers from the Gram Parsons albums, and can remember buying the Pieces of the Sky album, which still has a purity and clarity that is not diminished in any way. In contrast, Wrecking Ball was something of a transition; it was an foray into electronic rock music, with the producer Daniel Lanois (U2), and for that reason it must have been a risk (I recall seeing her on the tour supporting this album and Greensboro and watching a couple of “fans” leave in the middle of the concert, reminiscent of the response to Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde).
In hindsight, the bold move to create Wrecking Ball seems visionary. She covers songs by Jimi Hendrix, Dylan and Neil Young, but also includes the work of emerging artists (at the time) like Gillian Welch and Julie Miller and companions Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, both of whom perform as well. The title duet with Neil Young recalls the work Young had done with Nicolette Larson on Comes A Time; Young’s harmonies also accompany Harris on “Sweet Old World”, a powerful lament that is a perfect match for Young’s haunting voice.
My two favorite pieces are the contributions of Miller and Welch. Both anthems of faith, “It Don’t Matter” is a gospel tinged expression of trust in the life to come, but with an edge; “Orphan Girl” contrasts the absence of community in this life with the hope of reunion and reconciliation in the hereafter. Both songs are drenched with reverb and percussion and are carried along with a pulse that is alive and intense; in this way each rendering is spared an excessive sentimentality.
I love many phases of Emmylou’s journey, from the original recordings onward, but Wrecking Ball stands out; it portrays an artist who is willing to take risks, affirm the emerging gifts of others, and trust her instincts.