How can you not love a song about a man who sings sweet nothings to his cow while plowing the field?
When the day got long, as it does about now,
I’d hear him singing to his mulely cow,
singing, ‘C’mon sweet old girl.
I’d bet the whole damn world
we’re going to make it yet to the end of the row.’
Despite the initial sentiment, Gillian Welch is not filling up with sunshine and butterflies as she ages, though. By the end of the song, the farmer has lost his land and the cow has run off. The Harrow and The Harvest is bleak, but beautiful as well. Like many great folk musicians, Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings are able to celebrate the brief snippet of the day where sweetness or hope triumphed momentarily. The sparse production also lets their flawless musicianship shine through, which tricks your brain into thinking anything this beautiful can’t be all that sad.
This is not a groundbreaking album either. But that’s not a complaint. These two don’t need to innovate or add in extra instrumentation to keep things interesting. Consequently, many of the songs sound like they could have fit on their previous albums: “Scarlet Town” seems like something that might have originated from Revival or Hell Among The Yearlings, “Dark Turn Of Mind” and “Down Along The Dixie Line” could have come from Time (The Revelator), “Tennessee” sounds like something from Soul Journey. The only song that seems like a bit of a departure is the acerbic “The Way It Goes,” with its chorus
That’s the way that it goes,
everybody is buying little baby clothes.
That’s the way that it ends,
though there was a time when she and I were friends.
The song tells the stories of an old group of friends and the various paths that led them apart: drugs, prostitution, alcoholism, prison, and murder. Imagine a bunch of Nick Cave characters posting updates on Facebook.
It has been eight long years since the last Gillian Welch album, Soul Journey, came out. Word has it that Gillian and Dave tried multiple times to record new songs during that time period but weren’t happy with the results. Thank god for perfectionists because The Harrow and The Harvest is one of this year’s finest collection of songs. There’s not a dud on here. For that matter, there hasn’t been one throwaway song in the history of Gillian’s recorded output. What’s becoming clear though, is that Gillian and Dave might write the occasional subpar song; they’re just not going to let your hear it. Only the best for you and I.