GILLIAN WELCH The Harrow & The Harvest (Acony)
This is a remarkable album, and an insidious one too. At first its songs seem almost archaic, compromised by their hairshirt austerity and authenticity, a woody, backporch thump (played on guitar, banjo, harmonica, hands and feet) that does nothing to ingratiate itself with listeners weaned on cheaper, flashier thrills. Persevere and persevere, though, and notice how the songs are freighted with contemporary allusions to drugs, prostitution, murder, child abuse and economic collapse – yeah, I know, fun for all the family - and feel a small tremor of shock and delight when Welch sings about “nineteen hundred and ninety nine” without breaking the spell of a song that could otherwise easily have been written a century before that. Hear also the soul, blues, folk and country that’s simmering in what initially seems to be thin gruel musically. Slow moving, delicately picked and exquisitely harmonised, this album really does deserve to be listened to repeatedly.
“The Way It Will Be” is somehow imbued with a kind of lazy Laurel Canyon bad trip vibe that suggests Neil Young deep in his doom trilogy, fostering a sense of creeping dread that lingers over the songs that follow it, peopled by characters overtaken by circumstance and judgement. The melancholy ache at the heart of “Hard Times” is a marvel to behold, a catch in Welch’s voice being all that’s needed to take this song about gentle defiance and resistance into regions rarely mapped by popular music. The bluesy, sardonic “The Way The Whole Thing Ends” closes the album with Gillian trying on a slow-rolling, sassy, heavy-lidded delivery.
Even the inlay marks “The Harrow & The Harvest” apart from its contemporaries: in place of a booklet is a thick square of cardboard onto which the artwork and credits have been embossed. Tragically it hasn’t been released on vinyl; despite sounding reasonable for a CD, I can only imagine how this music might flourish on a medium more amenable to its staunchly old-fangled charms. Irrespective of how you hear it, though, “The Harrow & The Harvest” is a marvel, and one of 2011’s finest.