Gillian Welch – The Harrow and The Harvest
For fans of Gillian Welch it has been a long and patient wait for a new album to follow up 2003’s Soul Journey. Her best release was a decade ago with Time (The Revelator), an album which really solidified her as a true auteur of stark and soulful country folk music and the good news is that The Harrow & The Harvest is close to matching the greatness of that album.
Many musicians fall into the trap of adding more and more to each album, whether it be grand concepts, extra guitar tracks or guests. Welch has done the opposite by stripping her songs back to the bare bones of her voice, guitar, banjo and harmonica and the sublime playing of partner David Rawlings. What it does is reveal the purity of their playing and lead the listener right into the heart of their songs.
Take Dark Turn of Mind with its opening line “Take me and love me if you want me, don’t ever treat me unkind, cause I’ve had bad trouble already and it left me with a dark turn of mind”. Immediately it is clear that this isn’t a breezy Nashville country record but rather it is a collection of songs that probe the dark corners and shadows of the human condition. In that sense it conjures up comparisons to an album like Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. That album was built on matters of mortality where The Harrow and The Harvest casts a wider net, embracing topics such as unfulfilled expectations and complicated love. The album title is a perfect analogy for the influences and factors that determine one’s path through life and the resulting situations and events.
Though the subject matter is heavy it is awash with an aching melancholy, both in Welch’s voice and Rawling’s playing that, though its beauty, encourages optimism. Welch manages to invest a deep well of yearning in her singing that instils absolute belief in what she is singing about. Her foil and equal is Rawlings and his mesmerising playing that can dance lightly with notes sparking off in multiple directions as on The Way It Goes or restrained and tender on Down Along The Dixie Line. Without the life he adds to the music this would be a weary listen lacking colour and shape.
Six White Horses is the most traditional song on the album with its acoustic banjo, harmonica and handclaps leading the way. By including songs like this Welch shows the range she can cover within what many may perceive as a singular sound. In fact the more you listen to The Harrow & The Harvest the more the songs open up into blues, folk and soul directions. It reinforces how the decision to limit the range of musical tools at her disposal became a liberation rather than a restriction when it came to recording these captivating songs.