Blessed with a Dark Turn of Mind: Gillian Welch's Spiritual Strivings
Update! Alec Wilkinson for the New Yorker makes many similar points about the record, in this piece just out for the magazine. Cool, but I wrote mine early last week, so feeling ahead of the curve, even if I do live in a flyover state and famously conservative city!
“It is the best kind of record: one that lures you in and soothes you with harmonies and banjo, only to leave you wondering what the hell just happened.”
—Kitty Empire, review of The Harrow & the Harvest in The Observer, June 26, 2011
That’s a good question to ask of someone who sings of spending seven years with her companion
on the burning shore, with Gatling guns and paint,
working the lowlands door to door, like a Latter-day Saint.
And that’s before she’s turned out at the top of the stairs, by someone who took all the glory,that you just couldn’t share. Welch and her partner David Rawlings sing in haunting union:
I’ve never been so disabused, never been so mad
I’ve never been served anything that tasted so bad.
Listening to this song, “The Way It Will Be,” I too don’t know what the hell just happened, but it’s impossible not to complete the story, to fill in those gaps. We’ve all eaten that bitterness at some point. And that urge to figure out the details in the mysteriously unsettling story comes wrapped here in religiously-tinged narratives and imagery that historically have received their richest expression in the musical culture of the American South.
Welch’s Southern characters, though, emerge not from some imaginary version of God, country, and family, but from the spiritual strivings of folk who have seen plenty of hard times.
Here's a clip from one tune, "The Way It Goes," performed recently: