Style: Spare, haunting country-folk; compare to Dylan, The Carter Family, Emmylou Harris
Top tracks: "Tennessee," "The Way It Goes," "Hard Times"
Toward the end of The Harrow and the Harvest, Gillian Welch introduces us to a plowman who works long days in the field, toiling against the earth, a mule his only companion. To make it through each grueling day, he sings this song to his beloved animal: "Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind no more."
The song is performed simply. It's easy to hear it as a lavishly-orchestrated, show-stopping ballad, but Welch makes the gamble to keep it lean and spare, just the raw intimacy of voice, guitar, and banjo. And though the song doesn't mention Jesus by name, it suggests a distinctly gospel hope that, for all our temporal trials, better times await those who labor faithfully. In both respects, the song is a worthy stand-in for the album as a whole.
It's Welch's first album in eight years, and it's made in a way that suggests that the fuller, band-oriented sound of 2003's Soul Journey never happened. It's basically a sequel to 2001's devastating Time (The Revelator), and it is both a completely unsurprising comeback record and a completely thrilling one. Welch does what she does best, weaving together classic country and Appalachian folk with the timeless language of American story and song. She and long-time musical partner Dave Rawlings perform strictly as a duo, and the songs sound like they could have been written and performed basically any time in the last, oh, seventy or eighty years.
But Welch doesn't live in the past so much as she brings ancient wisdom to bear in the present. One song, "The Way It Goes," begins with a decidedly modern reference to heroin injection. It isn't an addict's ...1