Essentials: Gillian Welch ‘The Harrow And The Harvest’ Album Review

Ah, the beauty and the almost overwhelming artistic achievement that characterizes the music of Gillian Welch.

“To be commercial, everybody wants happy love songs. People would flat-out ask me, ‘Don’t you have any happy love songs?’ Well, as a matter of fact, I don’t. I’ve got songs about orphans and morphine addicts.”

“I don’t start writing until I’m totally miserable.”

Gillian Welch hasn’t changed her outlook on life or music since she uttered those words. When asked to comment on The Harrow and the Harvest she said, “It’s a little dark and a little vengeful.” And more than a little brilliant, we must add.

The music of Gillian Welch gets better and better with every release, and even if fans had to wait eight long years since their last, Soul Journey, this album was bound to attract new listeners who will be further compelled to seek out everything they’ve done previously. Notice the stipulation of “they”, for Gillian Welch’s music is really a union of two musical souls, Gillian and her partner, co-vocalist, and guitarist extraordinaire, David Rawlings. So much so that Rawlings’ solo album from 2009 entitled A Friend of a Friend, was almost but not quite a Gillian Welch record.

Quite simply, this is American folk music at its best, inspired by The Stanley Brothers, Bob Dylan, Appalachia, and the Nashville of Bill Monroe. In Gillian’s superbly melancholy voice you will hear a slow, dark and dreamy outlook on life that will bury itself into your soul. However, this music is far from old-fashioned, informed as as it is by Welch’s wry and contemporary way with a lyric such as these lines from “Tennessee”:

Of all the ways I’ve found to hurt myself, you may be my favourite one of all.”

Kind of makes one wonder what the attraction is in the mostly mediocre fare available in contemporary music. While some say she’s nothing but a California middle-class girl who hasn’t listened to a new record in twenty years, countless others hail Gillian Welch as one of the finest singer-songwriters to come along in decades. And as for the middle-class taking up the mantle of folk/country/Americana, there’s a long history of artists who have earned their reputation in such a manner: Dylan himself, Emmylou Harris, Ian and Sylvia, Richard and Linda Thompson, and more.

And as for David Rawlings’ delicate and delicious playing: there is no finer guitarist on the folk scene today.

You may find this music slow on first hearing, and the instrumentation somewhat bare, for it seldom extends beyond guitar and banjo. Two or three songs into the album though and you’ll be hooked on what sounds like classic tunes that could have been written and recorded in this manner decades ago. This is deliberate, and it’s evocative of another time, when the artistry and subtlety of albums such as those produced on the Vanguard label (Doc Watson, Joan Baez, Odetta) were met with enthusiasm and the highest critical praise from discerning fans and critics alike.

Highly recommended and bound to take its place as of the best releases of the past decade.