In the 1990s and early aughts Gillian Welch rode at the helm of an alt-country and retro-folk movement that reached its pinnacle with the smash soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou. In 2003 she released Soul Journey, an album that stepped slightly away from her old-timey, front-porch M.O. — mainly Welch and musical partner David Rawlings introduced percussion and electric guitar, previously anathemas on Welch albums. To a lot of people, Soul Journey was Welch’s strongest album yet by letting some much-needed color into Welch’s sepia-toned world.
After eight years, Welch has finally followed up Soul Journey, and anyone hoping that her previous gestures toward pop would be expanded to a larger stylistic shift will surely be disappointed. The Harrow and the Harvest is vintage, “vintage” Gillian Welch: two guitars, two voices, frequent quotations of old spirituals and folk songs, and lots of references to whiskey, farming, and death.
Welch has been remarkably honest in recent interviews regarding the writer’s block she and Rawlings fought in the years after Soul Journey, and the title of The Harrow and the Harvest references their particular artistic drought. When an artist has struggled over something for as long as Welch as worked on this album, you want to give her the benefit of the doubt and know that what you’re hearing is her best, most original stuff. But it’s hard not to hear traces of earlier, better Welch songs on The Harrow and the Harvest — gothic strummer “Scarlet Town” resembles the murder ballad “Caleb Meyer,” while “Dark Turn of Mind” has the same lilting sadness of “My Morphine” — and wonder whether she and Rawlings have fully beat their writer’s block after all.
But Gillian Welch in neutral mode can still tug mightily at the white whale of Americana soul, and The Harrow and the Harvest has its fair share of powerful moments. On the languorous, haunting “Tennessee,” Welch’s narrator looks back on a life of drifting and drinking with fondness and regret. “Down Along the Dixie Line” has a melody so sure and perfect that it must have been ripped from an aluminum disc buried in a Mississippi vault. Welch’s voice is as varied and resonant as ever — flying like a songbird on the gospelly “Six White Horses” and dragging in the dirt on the black-hearted blues of “The Way the Whole Thing Ends.” Praise is due as well for Rawlings’ beautifully crisp, tireless guitar work – using the breaks in nearly every song for mini-clinics in Fahey-esque virtuosity.
It’s kind of frustrating that Welch and Rawlings are so stuck in their ways and refuse to think outside of their weather-beaten, one-room-country-shack box. Blame it on their own artistic tendencies or the fact that they work in a genre that frowns on too much experimentation. But even if The Harrow and the Harvest sounds a little too familiar, the duo’s spot at the top of the trad-folk hierarchy remains in tact. Without the benefit of clairvoyance, it’s still a good bet to say that if you’re going to buy one alt-country album for the next eight years, you’re not going to get much better than this.