In these days when artistic lay-offs and comebacks are familiar territory, eight years between albums remains a relatively long time, and suggests an unusual level of perfectionism or writer's block, or both. 2009's Dave Rawlings' Machine album was a patchy affair showcasing the talents of Gillian Welch's long-term musical partner, although Welch herself featured heavily on the album and shared songwriting credits on a handful of the tracks. The Harrow & The Harvest is therefore the first proper offering from Gillian Welch since Soul Journey in 2003, and its title reflects that 'unpleasant place to be' as Welch describes her own struggle to write material that she felt was worthy of recording.
What is most obvious on first hearing is the pared down simplicity of the songs; banjo, harmonica and acoustic guitar being the only instrumentation, used sparingly, but with almost scientific precision. The songs themselves are rooted in the kind of dark and earthy Americana that is clearly deeply embedded in Gillian Welch's soul, despite her often cited New York origins and Californian upbringing. This is music that is stripped back to the bone with no unnecessary embellishments, neither a note nor a phrase, to stand between it and the cool unfussiness of Welch's voice. The best songs like the lovely 'Tennessee', 'Hard Times' and 'Silver Dagger' hint in their very titles at the content within, the latter employing a harmonica break of Dylanesque stature, the others subtly augmented by delicately picked guitar. While such simplicity is undoubtedly the music's avowed intent, and it truly delivers on that promise, it also lends some of the material a curious lifelessness that was missing from Gillian Welch's Revival and Hell Among The Yearlings albums. Repeated listens do indeed reveal additional layers to the music, and this is an album that definitely requires and benefits from attentive and proactive listening to peel back the layers and uncover its full subtlety. But its simplicity is occasionally its undoing, being almost too studied, too contrived to be emotionally engaging, and for me this lack of a sense of involvement, reflected in Welch's detached vocal style, is what makes the album an enjoyable, much admired, but vaguely unsatisfying experience.
Having said all of that, The Harrow & The Harvest knocks spots off anything similar released recently, and is far better than its unnaturally jaunty predecessor. Gillian Welch's personal soul journey into the heart of Americana has clearly reached an altogether different level in the past eight years, one which nevertheless feels right. Those converted already will need no further encouragement to buy, other than the handy CD jewel box insert that doubles as a beer mat. Those new to Gillian Welch may wish to sample Time The Revelator, or the earlier albums, before committing themselves to joining her on this current, more difficult leg of her journey.