Review Summary: A dark and brooding country masterpiece.
The Harrow And The Harvest was for many critics THE country album of 2011, and listening to it, it's hard not to be struck by its beauty, intricate songcraft, and overwhelmingly dark undertones. Welch has been on the scene for a while - look on youtube and you'll find a clip of a wonderful acapella version of an old folk song, 'nobody but the baby' sung with two other country queens, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss. Welch has shown over her career that she can more than hold her own with these iconic folk figures, but The Harrow And The Harvest comes a good 8 years after Welch's last offering, 2003's Soul Journey. This is a startlingly long time, but one gets the feeling on listening that this album is well worth the wait. Erstwhile songwriting and performing partner David Rawlings is once again on hand, adding his wispy backing vocals and frantic yet delicate guitar picking to the record's country-folk textures.
Born reportedly over countless torturous recording sessions with Rawlings, The Harrow And The Harvest is at once dark and foreboding, and this can be seen both in the songs and also from the gothic cover art, where Rawlings is seen whispering in Welch's ear, the symbolism evoking biblical temptation. The role Welch plays in many songs here is one of a wayward traveller, a 'good girl gone bad' for the folk scene, a kind of earthy, rootsy Rihanna. However, the comparison stops there - for there is nothing gaudy or manufactured about Welch's dour melodies, which whilst firmly set in the slow-country mould meander seamlessly over her and Rawlings' subtle guitar textures.
Lyrical themes include death, time's passing, temptation and loss - a heady combination that sees Welch's dark, husky voice contemplating her fall in the stunning 'Tennessee', and the loss of her friends to family life in another standout track, 'The Way That It Goes.' The themes of the album are interconnected by something common - inescapable fate. This can be clearly seen in the sequence of three tracks, 'The Way It Will Be', 'The Way It Goes' and 'The Way The Whole Thing Ends' which are strung out along the album to provide a sense of moving towards an inevitable consequence. 'The Way It Will Be' is a yearning, contemplative ballad on leaving home and feeling loss ('..throw me a rope on the rolling tide...'), with Welch's and Rawlings harmonies gelling together seamlessly into a single, beautiful and poignant whole.
The Harrow And The Harvest is the sort of album that, though deceptively simple in instrumentation and production, rewards with multiple listenings. All the tracks are fairly similar, and one gets the feeling that the two musicians are well within their comfort zone, musically; though this isn't a huge concern given the consistent quality of the material. The dark lament of the albums chief themes never strike one as overly depressing, but there may be hidden depths to this record in the lyrics that will reveal themselves over time. This is the mark of a significant musical achievement, and as a result this record should be seen as one of the defining moments of Welch's entire career in years to come.