Style: Spare, haunting country-folk; compare to Dylan, The Carter Family, Emmylou Harris
Top tracks: "Tennessee," "The Way It Goes," "Hard Times"
Toward the end of The Harrow and the Harvest, Gillian Welch introduces us to a plowman who works long days in the field, toiling against the earth, a mule his only companion. To make it through each grueling day, he sings this song to his beloved animal: "Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind no more."
The song is performed simply. It's easy to hear it as a lavishly-orchestrated, show-stopping ballad, but Welch makes the gamble to keep it lean and spare, just the raw intimacy of voice, guitar, and banjo. And though the song doesn't mention Jesus by name, it suggests a distinctly gospel hope that, for all our temporal trials, better times await those who labor faithfully. In both respects, the song is a worthy stand-in for the album as a whole.
It's Welch's first album in eight years, and it's made in a way that suggests that the fuller, band-oriented sound of 2003's Soul Journey never happened. It's basically a sequel to 2001's devastating Time (The Revelator), and it is both a completely unsurprising comeback record and a completely thrilling one. Welch does what she does best, weaving together classic country and Appalachian folk with the timeless language of American story and song. She and long-time musical partner Dave Rawlings perform strictly as a duo, and the songs sound like they could have been written and performed basically any time in the last, oh, seventy or eighty years.
But Welch doesn't live in the past so much as she brings ancient wisdom to bear in the present. One song, "The Way It Goes," begins with a decidedly modern reference to heroin injection. It isn't an addict's lament so much as it's a grim, darkly comedic take on the circle of life; death circles overhead, even as "everybody's buying little baby clothes." The song's very title hints at the album's underlying themes, an almost fatalistic outlook that isn't cynical so much as it's doggedly honest about the nature of reaping and sowing. (The album's title is anything but random.)
There's also a song called "The Way the Whole Thing Ends," and another called "The Way It Will Be." The latter—a song about self-made ruin—summarizes everything here in one short line: "The way you made it, that's the way it will be." The whole album is rife with scenarios that prove that statement true.
"Tennessee" is a ghostly epic of self-destruction ("It's only what I want that makes me weak"), and "Down Along the Dixie Line" is a post-Civil War Southerner's lament for a world that can never be returned to. Grace shines through the darkness indirectly here—in the better-times hopefulness of "Hard Times" and in the gallows humor that peppers the album—but, for all its darkness, the album isn't dispirited so much as it's informed by harsh, hard-won wisdom: The choices we make matter, and if we all got exactly what we deserved, there'd be nothing left but hard times and toil.
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