After eight years, Gillian Welch has at last surfaced again with a new album, softly shattering the quiet that had befallen her rightfully claimed place in the musical world. Eight years of patient anticipation has finally paid off. With the recent release of “The Harrow and the Harvest” one thing is certain; the undeniable care, emotion, and time forged into its creation. Gillian, with company Rawlings, had previously expressed they were experiencing difficulty creating material with the desired results causing the duo to pull in the reins on the project ahead.
It’s apparent that the two by no means intended to rush the artistic process, and this becomes evident in this seemingly perfected (comprehensive) album. Of course everyone has their own idea of what that perfection entails, but for Gillian, there is a confidence and content in her voice that can be heard throughout. Instead of churning out a sub-standard album of unoriginal songs (which in the bluegrass sense, can be made twice as unoriginal with the traditional and repetitious hues often used by artists of the genre), Welch and Rawling’s ultimately reemerged successful taking care to throw down a commendable hunk of good old timey mastery upon us all.
The album is entirely acoustic, which makes it fit for quiet moments. It’s for times when you can turn up the sound and listen to the feelings that emanate clear through her voice until the very end. Though each song has its own individuality, “The Harrow and the Harvest” is as a whole, is a body of work to be initially heard in it’s entirety. Develop personal relationships with each song later.
Right from the start, Welch sets the tone for what is to come. It’s a feeling of awareness. The first song off the album, Scarlet Town, is one of slowly precipitating chords and lyrics, and immediately evokes a feeling calm and adjustment to her state. It causes you to take a step back, to relax, and become submerged in her sound as she takes you traveling down into the depths. The song is full of traditional nuance and the equivocal nostalgia of Appalachia. The story is one of heartbreak, and becomes apparent as Gillian sings, “ fare you well my own true love, if you ever see me around, I’ll be lookin’ through a telescope from hell to Scarlet Town”. Rawling’s part in the song brings the intended emotion to its completion with guitar rifts that heave your heart up and down from your stomach to your throat. The first track immediately meets expectations and then exceeds them leaving the listener excited for the next to come.
Proceeding into the next song, Dark Turn of Mind sets a somewhat unexpected but welcomed change of pace. It’s a silent blues sound mingled with a soft agony from within Gillian’s voice. Coupled with Rawling’s parts, he maintains the slow drifting feeling, a sad lullaby that comes to a conclusion with the low humming melody of Gillian. The Way It Will Be brings a sort of irony in the pain experienced by the protagonist of the song. There is an element of finality woven into it that seems to be brought to a cold recognition of reality as she sings, “the way you made it, that’s the way it will be”. This song is representative of bottled up emotions that are wrapped in her seemingly defeated demeanor. It appears to be the protagonist acclimating to heartbreak and in turn, coming to terms with it.
Following those tracks, Welch brings the pace back to the tempo of Scarlet Town with the song Tennessee. The songs themselves feel old, like they were sung years ago, but they are done in a new way that makes them relevant. Down Along the Dixie Line is a tribute to longing for home, the urge to go back to things familiar. Six White Horses, is clearly the traditional anthem of the album. Her quiet vocals begin to seem tangible and concrete. This track brings a variable element to the album that becomes intricate in its overall comprehension. It is a reminder of folk and bluegrass tradition, the unequivocal gospel rooted song that is organic and simple like songs sung by Gillian during her work on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. It brings to the table the introduction of harmonica, banjo, and foot tapping, and is capped off with Gillian’s semi-yodeling overtures that emphasize the high notes of the piece.
Silver Dagger is a ballad of impossible love, as it has remained through the past. Old Crow Medicine Show has done their take on the song, bringing to it hints of Romeo and Juliet-esque tragedy. David Rawlings, who under the title David Rawlings Machine has worked with and produced Old Crow in the past, brings a new take on the song with this album. The harmonica has the certain “Dylan element” and in turn makes it feels familiar.
The overall pace of the album feels like rolling down a highway. It’s reminiscent of journeys that lead across back country; in a car, windows down with a warm breeze blowing through. The sensation of steady forward motion as tires and the road meet, gliding gently along. Her songs can be felt in those moments just before the peaceful drift off to sleep in the passenger seat. The rural ambiance of the album immerses the listener in the imagery of Gillian’s lyrics, and takes us away to a front porch overlooking green hills, or to rocks down by a riverside. She takes us back to the fundamentals of simple life. Whether or not that notion is fathomable or experienced by everyone who listens, the associations Gillian draws upon paints her clear picture through her stories and melodies.
In that sense, Welch successfully embellished the work with nostalgia for the past and hard times, a vehicle for most Bluegrass and Americana artists. The real test tends to lend itself towards whether or not the artists also successfully conveyed this with notions of the present, the way things are now. Songs like Scarlet Town and Silver Dagger are evidence of that achievement. Gillian effortlessly softens such tumultuous concepts. The lull of acoustic rifts by Rawlings coupled with her mesmerizing vocals, creates a glorious juxtaposition of emotion and imagery. The Harrow and the Harvest takes us on a journey, and by the end of the album, feels as though you have returned home. Perhaps as a testament to the length of time taken between albums, if there ever was a doubt in Gillian, this will change your mind and leave you wanting more.
By Alicyn Lane