Gillian Welch: The Harrow & the Harvest – review

(Acony)

It has been eight long years since Gillian Welch's last album, 2003's Soul Journey – a gap that prompts the inevitable question from those in thrall to the post-Appalachian lull of this Nashville-based duo. What have they been doing? Preparing the ground, you might conclude. Welch and her long-term partner Dave Rawlings have toured in the interim, and she has worked with the Decemberists. In 2009 they released a Rawlings-fronted record, A Friend of a Friend, which seems to have freed them up. It has probably taken this long for Welch and Rawlings to produce 10 songs that met their punishingly high standards.

Only one "old" song has survived: the achingly lovely "The Way It Will Be", previously known as "Throw Me a Rope". Certainly, all the exacting, pared-down takes on traditional music here – country, bluegrass, Dylan – speak of artists distilling their influences until the most spartan and flab-free iteration results.

And yet, on repeated listens The Harrow & the Harvest feels more mysterious than this asceticism suggests. It is replete with events alluded to, but unsung. Many of their albums are like this – carefully written to sound like folk manuscripts handed down across the ages, illuminated by Rawlings's eloquent guitar. And yet The Harrow is especially full of drama that occurs off-camera. It is the best kind of record: one that lures you in and soothes you with harmonies and banjo, only to leave you wondering what the hell just happened.

The mystery starts on the cover – a faintly art deco affair casting Welch and her partner as neo-medieval figures surrounded by significant flora and fauna, art that recalls the cover of Joanna Newsom's Ys. There are riddles within, too. "Scarlet Town" invokes a deep well, a dark grave and an iron bell and unmentioned happenings that "did mortify my soul". The protagonist ends up looking at Scarlet Town down a telescope, from hell. We never learn why. On "Silver Dagger", Welch's protagonist is "on the dark side of a hollow hill"; she is "through with food". Is she strung out on drugs? Is she a ghost, and was she killed by her lover?

Harrowing refers to the method of breaking up clods of earth before sowing; the title is typical of Welch's (and Rawlings') pre-industrial bent. But this duo like the word's more popular meaning too, a tendency elegantly summarised here on "Dark Turn of Mind". Among the lost mules and weeping women you can also hear the muted clank of the wheel of life ("Everybody's buying little baby clothes," Welch marvels). Songs called "The Way It Will Be", "The Way It Goes" and "The Way the Whole Thing Ends" document changing relationships with a sense of wise fatalism.

Fans often flock to Americana seduced by the ragged glories of its (frequently male) protagonists; this is no less a heartland release for being still and quietly perceptive. At the heart of much Americana is the idea of letting it all hang out. Gillian Welch is not of a mind to let anything hang out, ever; but she and Rawlings have produced a classic of the genre.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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