Eight years after the brilliant Soul Journey one would count on Gillian Welch bringing her take on alt.country and Americana to the new heights of languid, laid-back perfection. Needless to say, she does exactly that on The Harrow And The Harvest, a record so thoughtful and so faultless you might actually want to accuse it of being excessively good.
Several collaborations with the likes of Ryan Adams and Bright Eyes notwithstanding, studio-wise Gillian Welch wasn’t up to much in the course of these eight years. She did contribute quite heavily to her long-standing musical partner’s David Rawling’s Friend Of A Friend album from 2009, but that’s about it. So it is with great anticipation and cautious gratitude that you approach this new collection of songs. And with the initial chords of the minimalist, understated country number ‘Scarlet Town’ you know you’re in the familiar O Brother Where Art Thou? territory. Which is exactly the place where you want to be – so that at first the question of whether this is up to her usual standards or not remains relatively immaterial.
The mood throughout the album is largely pensive and deeply sad, as it usually is with Gillian Welch. And even though musically “The Way It Goes” sounds like a cheerful enough ditty, the opening lines about “needle in the arm” clearly point you in another direction. Most of the record though is made up of Welch’s typically melodic, dew-soaked mellowness, best heard on ‘The Way It Will Be’ – with one of those timeless melodies you believe to have known all your life. My only complaint about The Harrow And The Harvest is actually quite perverse: it’s too nothing-left-hanging, no-second-wasted perfect for her own good. She didn’t try quite so hard on Soul Journey, and was not afraid of rougher edges – yet somehow those tunes came off fuller, richer and, dare I say it, better.
Drenched in Welch’s crystal clear voice and crystal clear production, The Harrow And The Harvest is almost self-consciously transcendental. But even though one might argue that eight years is slightly stretching it, there’s no denying the profound quality of these ten songs. Listening to this new album is like going on an ideal journey through the sunny, dusty Nashville. Like being seduced by a lazy yet totally irresistible lover.
Released on 28th June 2011 by Acony Records.