Gillian Welch

 

The Harrow and the Harvest Warners*****

Eight years. Eight years is forever in music business terms. Eight years of stars being born, rising, falling, disappearing. Of economies doing likewise. Eight years since Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings released Soul Journey. And then nothing. Well, not nothing. They gigged, turned up on friends’ albums and, late last year, Rawlings released his first solo album, A Friend of a Friend.Except it wasn’t his solo album just as The Harrow and the Harvestis not her solo album because these two free spirits have fused into one. Gillian Welch is actually a duo. Colin Meloy, of the Decemberists, offers this insight on Amazon.com: “It’s not just them performing and playing and singing together that is so uncanny, so wholly of one voice – the songwriting itself seems to have arrived at a similar apotheosis.” And if the long gap indicates writers’ block, there is no hint of it.

It is a remarkable album. Welch says her partner describes their songs as “10 different kinds of sad”. It’s an apposite description. And yet if these songs are sad, they are also frequently beautiful, always compelling and steeped in the roots of America south of the Mason-Dixon line. The production is stripped clean of any artifice, anything that might distract from the simple intensity of voice and guitar. But rarely has two voices, two guitars and the occasional banjo and harmonica sounded so measured and right. Rawlings’s guitar playing is thrilling, his solos a perilous journey that always reaches home. His breaks on the gorgeous Down Along the Dixie Lineand the epic Tennesseeare things of daring beauty. His ghostly harmonies also sit perfectly behind Welch’s unhurried knowing voice.

The references are to rural Americana, mainly white string-band with the occasional country blues mixed in; Dark Turn of Mindaches sweetly with the trials of life, as does the haunting The Way it Will Be. A darkness pervades; this is no idyll. “The great destroyer sleeps in every man,” she sings on Silver Dagger. This is but their fifth album since their 1996 debut Revival. Then, the depression-era dresses seemed an affectation for the New York-born 43-year-old. But the subsequent work, culminating in this collection, is a triumph of imagination, insight and intuition. See gillianwelch.com

Download tracks: Down Along the Dixie Line, Tennessee, Dark Turn of Mind