by Noah Kucij
Call it acoustic roots-rock or slowgrass or modern folk, but the music of Gillian Welch (pronounced like the gills on a fish, as she sometimes tells audiences in a conspiratorial stage whisper) is less interesting to classify than it is to hear. She’s better known for the traditional elements of her sound than for the way she’s filtered these elements through a modernist sensibility. But her best songs are revelations too big to fit in the boxes of “old” and “new”; the emotional realities she inhabits and evokes often seem to exist outside of everyday time. The five I introduce here are personal favorites, but any and all of the five Welch/Rawlings studio albums to date — from 1996’s Revival to 2011’s The Harrow and the Harvest — are fully worth your time. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too much longer for more by these brilliant and famously slow-working artists.
5. “By the Mark” from Revival
The standard compliment you pay to such a song is that it sounds old. But I think such praise is misleading as to what Welch is up to here. It’s not so much that she wants to dress her music up in antique clothes; it’s that some things never go out of style. She knows that for a hymn to endure, every syllable has to got be right, the melody to feel good in the throat, the theme to be ageless. She wraps a philosophical treatise on the value of struggle and suffering into a concrete, largely monosyllabic chorus. She shows that she knows what a classic is made of.
4. “Revelator” from Time (The Revelator)
Welch’s third album was a breakthrough not only in the scope of the songs but in the stepped-up role of partner David Rawlings. From this beautiful opening track, his harmony work is more pronounced, and his guitar playing, always virtuosic, is more expansive and expressive. Into this soundscape Welch brings a vocal that drips with melancholy and alienation. “I’m a pretender,” the singer cops, “and not what I’m supposed to be.” And yet this song feels devastatingly honest and revealing.
3. “I Dream A Highway” from Time (The Revelator)
Got fourteen and a half minutes? That’s how long it will take you to listen to the last track on Time. Its several dozen lines are meted out molasses-slow, and by the six-minute mark you may notice your heart rate plunging to cryogenic levels. This is an extreme example of Welch’s music treating time as a fluid medium. A sample verse:
Sunday morning at the diner
Hollywood trembles on the verge of tears
I watched the waitress for a thousand years
Saw a wheel inside a wheel, heard a call within a call
And I dreamed a highway back to you
This is Gillian’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Except maybe better.
2. “One More Dollar” from Revival
Welch is sometimes labeled a pretender, a middle-class Californian who slips cynically into the guises of Appalachian miners and Dust Bowl refugees. And if that’s your point of view, here’s your proof: a perfect first-person narrative of a migrant fruit-picker fallen on hard times. Trouble is, the execution is so heartbreakingly gorgeous, you have to wonder if in a hundred years, this song will be enshrined alongside Woody Guthrie’s best. Not only do the verses infuse a nameless protagonist’s life with import and dignity; the chorus seems to ring out for everyone weary after another day’s work and far from home.
1. “Wrecking Ball” from Soul Journey
Out of nowhere, at the end of the quite representative fourth album, Welch and Rawlings do something quite unrepresentative: They plug in. A couple of tracks on the first few discs used electric guitar, but in ways that seemed somehow dustier than their acoustic work; the bulk of their catalog comprises what they call “tiny little rock songs,” accomplished by ““taking an electric peg and putting it in an acoustic hole.” I understand that rocking out “Wrecking Ball” was by no means a Newport ‘65 moment; I only mention the instrumentation because it feels as if Welch and Rawlings knew they had something different here, something their normal arrangements couldn’t quite contain. The verses are tightly phrased, often cryptic personal vignettes that add up to something bigger: a soul standing back in awe at the strange arc of its own journey.
Bonus track: “Caleb Meyer,” a song from Hell Among the Yearlings, live in 2004