Soul Journey is the fourth release from Nashville’s endearing stepdaughter Gillian Welch. On what she calls her “sunniest record to date,” Welch — once again collaborating with her partner and fellow Berklee alum David Rawlings — presents 10 down-home songs of lonely, wandering souls reckoning with tarnished pasts and searching for relief, innocence and redemption.
On their last offering, Time (the Revelator), Welch and Rawlings smothered their gospel-tinged, Carter Family-style singing and arrangements in an introspective, brooding glaze that moved like molasses and boggled the listener with cryptic imagery and haunting historical allusions. On Journey, the traditional feel rises to the top and moves along a bit more briskly, thanks to the addition of fiddle, dobro, Hammond B-3 organ, and a loping, unobtrusive rhythm section.
The album begins with “Look at Miss Ohio,” the story of a reckless beauty queen who wants to “do right, but not right now.” The melody is instantly memorable, and when Rawlings adds his perfect lower harmony, you feel like you are back in Time (the Revelator). Halfway through the song the bass and drums drop in, setting the foot-tapping tone that winds in and out of the rest of the album on “Wayside/Back in Time,” “One Monkey,” and “Lowlands.”
The band’s ambulant jangle on these songs engages, but Welch truly shines when she is all alone. She puts her indelible personal stamp on the album’s two traditionals, “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and “I Had a Real Good Mother and Father,” directly channeling the weariness of travelers on the endless road to virtue and redemption. In “Mother and Father,” Welch despairingly asks the question that the carefree drifters in the rest of the songs avoid: “What good is my journey if I miss out on eternity?”
On “One Little Song,” Welch the traditionalist bemoans the hopeless search for authenticity: “There’s got to be a song left to sing, because everybody can’t have thought of everythingone little note that ain’t been used, one little word ain’t been abused a thousand times in a thousand rhymes.”
“One Little Song” and the aching “I Made a Lover’s Prayer” are the last taste of the unadorned Welch-Rawlings charm before the album ends with a bang on “Wrecking Ball.” Here Welch’s vocals are buried under distorted guitars, fiddle, organ, and a rhythm section. The clatter masks her admission that she was “a rolling stone” when she “left home,” which is just as well. The lyrics of “Wrecking Ball,” as well as the strain with which Welch delivers them through the jangle, is very much Dylan. But this classic roots-rock sound has been done a thousand times, and it leaves you longing for the directness with which she opened the album.
Overall, Soul Journey delights. The pared down lyrics and arrangements on the album make for a clearer, fresher listen than Welch’s previous efforts. Instead of slowly enchanting you into a candlelit, tapestried brood, this collection invites you out to the front porch for a cup of coffee and a spin in the rocking chair. It is a very pleasant, listenable and frequently rewarding album.
But let’s hope she doesn’t get too comfy in the old rocking chair. Welch shines with what she does best; her traditional selections and gems like “Dear Someone” and “One Little Song” are undeniably and effortlessly lovely. In this direct, parsimonious style, she will likely continue to sound as timeless as the pioneers that inspired her. But no amount of earnestness will keep the jangly guitars, organ swells, and Levon Helm blick blick-a-boom drum fills of “One Monkey” and “Wrecking Ball” from aging as quickly as any other serviceable nod to Harvest, Music From Big Pink, or Highway 61 Revisited.