After a 40-year career which has generated over 25 albums, countless collaborations, twelve Grammy wins, membership of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the undying gratitude of several figures in country music, it’s only fair that Emmylou Harris has earned the right to a bit of self-indulgence.
Alas, though, often self-indulgence doesn’t work. Harris’ genius has always been to take a song and own it, to make it her own. Whether it were an old Louvin Brothers number everyone had forgotten, or a completely new take on a Patsy Cline classic, her voice would transform it.
The trouble with Harris is that she’s never been much of a songwriter. Actually, that’s not correct, quite: there was one instance where her self-penned work was wonderful. Boulder to Birmingham, written shortly after the death of her collaborator, duettist and friend, Gram Parsons, was a highlight of 1975’s Pieces of the Sky album. This set begins with another tribute to Gram, The Road; but where the former was full of imagery and allusion, this one makes its point in the most prosaic of ways. All but two of these songs are self-written, but the only one that resonates is Darlin’ Kate, written for her close friend, the late Kate McGarrigle. Here it feels as though she forgets what she is trying to do and just writes from her heart.
The sound of the album is, of course, beautiful. They don’t get that wrong in Nashville. Emmylou plays guitar and her two collaborators, Jay Joyce and Giles Reave, perform admirably and tastefully on an array of guitars and percussion. Her voice, though not as light as it was, still has that irresistible frail breathlessness – and her diction is as indistinct as ever, a characteristic that always gave the impression that she was slightly distracted.
Performances and production are is excellent throughout, then. It’s the songs that are the problem. Harris still has so much to offer; she’s been through the Nashville corporate mill, and steeped herself on the alt-country side of things. She knows the business as well as anyone. She just needs to dig up some big old songs again, as those here aren’t consistently up to the standard fans have rightly come to expect.
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