“People ask me don't you have any happy love songs? Well, as a matter of fact, I don't. I've got songs about orphans and morphine addicts.” That quote from Gillian Welch sums up her life’s work as one of the world’s finest practitioners of bluegrass, Appalachian music and Americana. Sepia-toned evocations of the rural south are her trade but across five albums, Welch and her musical (and otherwise) partner Dave Rawlings have more than proved that they’re not just chasing down the Depression era dustbowl or spiriting up the ghosts of 19th century American folk.
Their fifth album, The Harrow and The Harvest, may have been recorded in just a month but these songs are painstakingly constructed and crafted to the point of being pared down to the bone, lean and hungry. Rawlings guitar playing is exemplary, sparse and rustic and Welch’s lyricism is at its most pointed and pained.
The Way it Goes recounts the gradual break-up of a group of friends and family and their eventual downfall through drink, drugs and infidelity, not unlike the story in this year’s Oscar nominee Winter’s Bone. On Dark Turn of Mind she sings “some girls are bright as the morning and some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind”, the sardonic use of the word “blessed” leaving you in no doubt about which kind she is.
But perhaps Welch’s best song yet is The Way it Will Be in which she sounds literally haunted and hexed by love: “I can’t say your name without a crow flying by” “you got me walking backwards into my home town”. she sings and we don’t know if she’s still trapped in a doomed union or raking over the remnants of a long-dead romance. You'll know how she feels - The Harrow and The Harvest will linger long in your memory too.