The Harrow & the Harvest - Gillian Welch Album Review
As any artist whose style is to strip back and refine, Gillian Welch is rightly revered. Along with long-term musical partner David Rawlings, this duo has absorbed the roots of bluegrass, folk and gospel to be at the forefront of alternative country. Whatever the label, after eight years since their last release (2003's Soul Journey), they return with 10 songs of utter refinement and distilled beauty.
Things start strongly with Scarlet Town, a place of foreboding and unnamed happenings that "did mortify my soul". The intricate melodies deepen the song's riddles. That our protagonist ends up spying Scarlet Town through a telescope from hell goes unexplained. The influence of Dylan comes through the gentle tumble of Silver Dagger, about a wretched girl or ghost who's "through with food".
The drama of such affairs may not be apparent at first listen. Some songs such as The Way It Will Be lull darkly with a wistful harmony before a soaring change in tone tugs at the heart. Recurrent themes of sinners and scoundrels, crestfallen lovers and losers without redemption echo through the records. Drug abuse was dealt with in the filmic narrative of Morphine (1998's Hell Among the Yearlings, which this record most resembles), but a wry wisdom in The Way It Goes offers respite for such sorrows.
David Rawlings, as ever, is deft, masterly and utterly captivating with his lilting guitar. His additions of banjo and harmonica are welcome and refreshing touches, as on the whimsical Six White Horses. Down the Dixie Line is softly strumming, suggesting grand open prairies, languid scenes of rolling pasture and a long wistful look. But the stately rhythms are a little too pervasive as on the languorous Dark Turn of Mind.
This is their style of course. Welch's dark themes run through her songs like shivers down a spine, ghostly and resilient. But I do miss their moments of levity - as in the oncoming spring in Winter's Come and Gone and Red Clay Halo, that joyous little ditty about dirt, in previous records. But make no mistake, this is an album to savour and cherish. The only hope is that the next record won't be so long a wait and that Welch returns to some of her former rock'n'roll.
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