Review Summary: Oh and I remember something you once told me/And I'll be damned if it did not come true/Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down/And they all lead me straight back home to you
There’s something approaching the mythical about Gram Parsons as a musical figure, akin to that sense of epic tragedy that made Joplin an immediate icon, to the detriment of her musical legacy. It’s hard to separate that myth from the man’s music; certainly he was the one of the strongest songwriters to come out of the Country-Rock boom of the 70s (although Gene Clark may ultimately lay claim to that title), but everything about his tumultuous, tragically short life, his outlook on existence and his impossibly highminded aim of making “cosmic American music” all lend to an almost mythological, inhuman image that only serves to obscure the fact that he was, first and foremost, just a guy writing some of the greatest, most heartfelt songs, of any genre, to be put on record. Grievous Angel finds Gram’s songwriting powers at their zenith, shedding some of his “cosmic” ambitions and reveling in a profound simplicity that, almost ironically, clarifies Gram’s vision into a tangible reality.
As an album title, Grievous Angel seems to bear out Gram’s cosmic aim, a portentous, biblical image heavy with symbolism, but as an album, the mostly ballad-driven affair is, on the surface, anything but cosmic in scale. Gram’s infatuation with the disaffected, wild soul of Western America is on full display here, delivered simply and without pretension. On Gram’s debut, pairing with the achingly beautiful harmonies of Emmylou Harris was a wise choice, on “Grievous Angel” it’s nothing less than inspired, her perennially yearning sense of heartache crystallizing the slow-burning melancholy of Gram’s lyrics into an indelible image of the American West as a symbol of the human spirit. So integral is Harris’ voice to the genius of the album, it’s hard not to think of it as a collaborative effort (in fact the album was originally credited as Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris). But regardless of how crucial her contributions to Grievous Angel are, this is Gram’s record, and while Emmylou’s role is integral to the album, it’s Gram’s vision that she elevates.
The degree to which Emmylou compliments the music on Grievous Angel is instantly apparent on the title track, a song which lays out all the best qualities of the album as a whole without overshadowing the rest of the songs. Sparse arrangements eschewed the lush tendencies that were sweeping Country music at the time, a mixing decision that was a conscious attempt at recalling the timeless atmosphere of Hank Williams. The tune itself is starkly beautiful, a moving deconstruction of classic Country tropes formed into Gram’s own image, filled with oblique references to cowboys, angels and Elvis, one of the more cryptically worded cuts Gram would pen over his career. The rest of the album continues in a similar vein, comedy and tragedy getting howling drunk together on a back porch with a beat up guitar, singing about the dramas and ambiguities of a life that would be best if lived as simple as possible, but which rarely seems to turn out that way.
It would be wrong to sell this album as just existential navel gazing though, even when that navel gazing has a sense of humor as sharp as on Grievous Angel. The three hoedown songs on the album, while not as essential as the intimate Brass Buttons or the mournful $1000 Dollar Wedding, play the Country music tropes the straightest, making clear Parson’s sincere love for the genre. I Can’t Dance is especially infectious, a toe tapping Tom T. Hall cover that exists just for the sheer fun of existing. The faster songs, while maybe not strictly in keeping with the themes of the rest of the album, show that, despite the 70s rock sheen and the poetic lyrics, Grievous Angel is, at the end of the day, a Country
record at heart, that at the end of the day, there has to be a party at some point after the funeral and life is more than just yearning for a past perfection that may not have ever existed.
Endnote: The prescient quality of In My Hour of Darkness, made morbidly tragic in hindsight (Parsons would overdose soon after finishing the mixing on this album), only adds to that indefinable sense of myth, the kind of legend out of which figures like Robert Johnson loom like titans. It’s all too easy to draw such poetic conclusions from a song so intertwined with the concept of death. And it’s hard to imagine that Gram wouldn’t have appreciated the fittingness of the connection. But to edify a songwriter in this manner is to obscure his humanity, without which his music is made into something so lofty that it becomes hard to relate to, ultimately obscuring the music behind the figure of the creator. Perhaps, although in this case he wasn’t writing autobiographically, it’s best to let the final word be from Gram himself: “But he was just a country boy/his simple songs confess/and the music he had in him/so very few possess”.