When an artist spends eight years working on – or at least working towards – a new record, it is easy to expect a certain extravagance: complex arrangements, perhaps; an unusual number of songs; possibly even a challenging new direction.
Those who come looking for any of this on Gillian Welch’s fifth album, “The Harrow And The Harvest”, are likely to be disappointed. In fact, Welch and David Rawlings have delivered the exact opposite kind of record: ten simple songs, featuring just the two of them singing and playing guitars, banjo and harmonica, with no great stylistic departures to spook the horses. Eight years passed, it seems, with the duo pathologically refining what they had, rather than elaborating upon it.
The result, as a consequence, is an album with ten new songs that in many cases – “Down Along The Dixie Line” and “Silver Dagger”, especially – could be mistaken for standards, so crafted and evolved that they feel like the work of many discreet hands, over decades. The title of “The Harrow And The Harvest” is a metaphor for the record’s lengthy gestation, I think, as well as a manifestation of Welch and Rawlings’ rurally-inclined aesthetic. Check them out on the cover, drawn as almost pagan deities amidst wild symbolism by metal artist John Baizley, a kind of art-deco companion piece to the cover of Joanna Newsom’s “Ys”.
If “Soul Journey” and the Dave Rawlings Machine albums suggested Welch was tending more and more towards a full band sound – a full Band sound, even – “The Harrow And The Harvest” strips everything right back (“Hard Times”, mind, has a certain Band-like gait). Fans of “Hell Among The Yearlings” and “Time (The Revelator)”, who treasure Welch and Rawlings unadorned, will be well satisfied here. The austere passion of their voices and the virtuoso elegance of their playing have never sounded stronger, or been recorded with such unforgiving clarity.
The comparatively jaunty outlook of “Soul Journey” has been rolled back, too, though some of the gothic extremes of Welch’s earlier work have been replaced by a certain rueful fatalism: three songs here are called “The Way It Will Be”, “The Way It Goes” and “The Way The Whole Thing Ends”. A sultry country torch song called “Dark Turn Of Mind”, meanwhile, highlights the charms of gloom-infatuated women with, surely, a wry self-awareness.
Rawlings’ conjoined covers of “Method Acting” (Bright Eyes) and “Cortez The Killer” (Neil Young) on “Friend Of A Friend”, seeming to emerge out of an elevated duo jam, give an indication of how some of these songs sound. “The Way It Goes”, for instance, is a rollicking folk song given extra filigree and nuance by Rawlings dancing around it in a style somewhat reminiscent of Django Reinhardt.
Elsewhere, the album stylistically picks up more where “Time (The Revelator)” left off, orbiting somewhere between deep tradition (“Six White Horses” feels like the work of two particularly assiduous scholars of Harry Smith, and would sit neatly next to something by, say, The Black Twig Pickers) and Neil Youngish balladry (“The Way It Will Be”, a song previously known as “Throw Me A Rope” that’s been a highlight of their live shows since 2004).
The reference I keep coming back to, though – and I’ve played “The Harrow And The Harvest” about twice as many times as any other record this year – is Richard & Linda Thompson, though it may be down to accidental similarities rather than design. It’s there in the calm forcefulness of Welch’s voice, and the way it cuts through the dazzling invention of Rawlings’ accompaniment, from the start of “Scarlet Town” onwards.
“Tennessee”, meanwhile, is one of Welch’s languidly unravelling narratives, which in this case sounds at least a little like the Thompsons working their way through a hitherto undiscovered Townes Van Zandt song. High praise, perhaps, but then Welch and Rawlings have written to my mind some of the best songs of the past decade or so, and “Tennessee” is right up there with “My Morphine”, “Barroom Girls”, “April The 14th”, “I Dream A Highway”, “Caleb Meyer”, “I Made A Lover’s Prayer”… I could go on. The point is, “The Harrow And The Harvest” is one of the least surprising comeback albums in recent memory, and also one of the very, very best. Questions?