This is much more than the release of an album. The last time that we properly heard from Gillian Welch was eight years ago when Lehman brothers were still in profit and Ryan Giggs was just a mere footballer. Granted she has toured extensively in that time and made appearances on "Friend of a Friend" in 2009 the album by her musical soul mate Dave Rawlings. She also had a large starring role on the Decemberists excellent "King is Dead" this year so 2011 is almost proving hyperactive for this great singer. So let us start by warmly welcoming her back and stating that the "The Harvest and the Harrow" is magnificent and well worth the long wait. Listeners will note immediately that it is an album of relative sparsity in terms of instrumentation, Rawlings presence is musically vital but never overwhelming and Welch herself has moved away from some of the playfulness on "Soul Journey" into a territory, which tends to explore the darker themes of her best album "Time (the revelator)". More than this it harks back to a heartfelt traditionalism which mines something very deep in American music.
"Scarlet town" has the Appalachian ambience of Caleb Mayer and is a great opener with Rawlings accompaniment showing the master musician at his best and a memorable chorus where Welch croons "look at that deep well, look at that dark day". Next up is "Dark turn of mind" a country blues lament that gently rolls along so slowly that you fear it might stop, but is genuinely exquisite. Three songs on the album start with the words "The Way" and the third song will excite those who have longed for the release of the live favourite "Throw me a rope" now renamed "The way it will be". It hints at Neil Young's "On the beach" and is an utter standout. The middle section of the album builds on this tremendous opening and comprises the drug referenced "The way that it goes", the intense six minute plus ruminating dark epic "Tennessee" (perhaps the albums nearest equivalent to "Revelator") and "Down along the Dixie Line" full of references to the deep south and lines drawn from the original civil war anthem "Dixie". In this setting the harmonizing of Welch and Rawlings is memorizing and the way he weaves his guitar lines effortless. Thus when "Six white horses" bounds in with harmonicas and handclaps its almost a full gear change upwards but a delightful one.
The album concludes with "Hard times" which could have been sung the day after the end of the civil war and it would have had resonance for that resolute generation of Americans. The penultimate song "Silver dagger" is possibly the weakest on the album sounding like a reworking of "You are my sunshine" yet other country artists would give their right arm to cover this. Finally the last of the "The Way" trilogy is the aptly named the "The Way the whole thing ends" which could have sound tracked Peter Bogdanovich's stunning black and white portrait of a atrophied West Texas town "The Last Picture Show" as Welch gently laments "that's the way the cornbread crumbles/that the way the whole thing ends". In the last analysis "The Harrow and the Harvest" is deceptively simple album but on deeper listens we discover hidden subtleties and gradations, which Welch and Rawlings have crafted into their best album to date. A warning - this reviewer has no objectivity when it comes to these master musicians but despite this when sheer class of this calibre hits you full force all you can do is hope that we don't have to wait until 2019 for another installment of such virtuosity.