So 2011 was kind of an odd musical year for me. A lot of my ALL-TIME favorite artists released new music, even relatively reclusive ones like Tom Waits (7 years since last album), Kate Bush (6), Radiohead (4), PJ Harvey (4), and Gillian Welch (8). I mean, getting one album from one of them would be enough, but all of them?! It was exciting!
When I’m rating and reviewing, I try my best to not compare an artist’s new album to their older work. I don’t always succeed at that, but it’s my goal, and I think makes my reviews more readable. It is one of my rules I follow when writing these things. But sometimes, with some of my favorites–who I know so well and have been following for so long–it is tough rule to follow. How can I not, even subliminally, compare to Kid A?
And when it came down to it, as much as I liked so so so many albums this year, there were not many where I liked an artist’s 2011 album more than my preferred favorites of their older work. I mean, I love the new Kate Bush and Radiohead albums–but more than their classics? In all honesty, probably not. That’s not a knock, or a claim they’re slipping, just tastes. And while I love taking a patient view of a career over time, frankly, the excitement before a release kept ending too soon.
Except for Gillian Welch. Gillian Welch! And David Rawlings! Their new album, The Harrow & The Harvest, is every bit the classic, and THE masterpiece by anyone in 2011. The authenticity of her old-time songwriting has been completely absorbed, as she turned inward to produce an intimate and harrowing record about the aftermath of blues, sin, heartbreak temptation. Dark, yes, but stunning nonetheless.
The album starts with a couple of beautiful, matter-of-fact blues songs. “On the day I came to Scarlet Town / You promised I’d be your bride / You left me here to rot away / Like holly on the mountainside,” she reflects, matter-of-factly, on “Scarlet Town.” “Some girls are bright as the morning, and some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind.”
A series of three songs (“The Way It Will Be” / “The Way It Goes” / “The Way The Whole Thing Ends”) also turn on this bluesy existentialism. “The way you made it, that’s the way it will be,” she whispers sadly and a bit confused. “Did you miss my gentle touch? Did I hurt you very much? That’s the way it goes,” she sings, flipping the script a bit. The sadness is everywhere, and this existence is explored, over and over again, as inevitable.
But at the same time, she fully embraces it; heartbroken or otherwise, she wouldn’t have it another way. And there lies the power of these songs. “I try to be a good girl / it’s only what I want that makes me weak / I had no desire to be a child of sin / Then you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek,” she sings on the incredible “Tennessee.” “I’ve tried drinking rye and gamblin’ / dancing with damnation is a ball / But of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself / Well you might be my favorite one of all.”
Musically, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (one of my favorite guitarists ever) kind of fall into their own little pocket between country, folk, bluegrass and blues. Rarely are the songs more than two voices and two acoustic guitars, maybe a banjo or harmonica if needed. A couple of songs here have a little upbeat bluegrassness to them, but most are calmer and more laidback. The two of them blend together, vocally, guitarly, everything, into one. This album displays that chemistry better than any of their others, easy. In the past, they have expanded their sound a little bit, but here they’ve got it down to just the essentials, nothing extra needed. This kind of intimate recording/performance, combined with the sadness and blues of the lyrics, make the whole thing feel like a journey on a psychological landscape.
I have no idea why it took Welch and Rawlings eight years to get to this album, but the sound they settled on here is the perfect distillation of what they do better than anyone: intimate, affecting, real, beautiful, stunning.