Review Summary: The stunningly beautiful departure album that established Harris herself still a force to be reckon with.
Old Times Series: (Part 1)
Normally, you would not expect a recording artist would revive their career at their late 40s or older, especially when he/she already released a string of relatively unsuccessful albums prior. However, there are cases where distinguished artists emerged from obscurity and released one of their most defining works, such as Marianne Faithfull
’s Broken English
and Neil Young
. In 1995, the latter’s collaborator/established country artist Emmylou Harris
marked the rather unthinkable step at the age of 48—record her new album with U2 and Peter Gabriel producer Daniel Lanois, engineer Mark Howard and various musicians from the familiar (Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Lucinda Williams
and the aforementioned Neil Young) to the not-so-familiar (U2 drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. and jazz drummer Brian Blade), resulting the hard-edged product known as Wrecking Ball
. (Not to be confused with the stupid song with the same name by the unmentionable pop artist) It may be a departure, but listening to it, and you will find that you are not just listening to her best album since her 1980 album Roses in the Snow
, but one of the best album of the 1990s.
For starters, Harris’ interpretation of the unlikely songs was otherworldly beautiful, to say the least, thanks to her breathy vocals and the Lanois’ atmospheric production. Just to take the stunning rendition of the title track by Neil Young as an example, the frail yet full-bodied vocals by Harris has complemented the original acoustic ballad, aided by the bell-like electric guitar, the ghostly beautiful backing vocals in the chorus by Young himself and calm yet pounding percussions, further shine the melancholic yet romantic lyrics of the song. Lanois and Harris also turned other already beautiful tracks to a whole new level, whether is it a harrowing farewell with a hypnotic, otherworldly piano that recalls Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound(Steve Earle’s “Goodbye”), a cowboy tale mixed with crystalline piano and electronic drones(“Deeper Well”), a Bob Dylan Christian rock gem fused with swirling guitars (“Every Grain of Sand”) and even a rendition of a Jimi Hendrix song drenched with cloudy guitar drones, while being laced with the bright vocals by Harris (“May This Be Love”). It’s no secret that Harris often covers other artists’ songs, even within her classic records such as Pieces of the Sky
, Elite Hotel
and Luxury Liner
, most of the albums are simply her renditions of other artists’ songs, if not entirely, but here she didn’t just perform the songs in her way, she transcended the songs into another kind of beauty that she had not captured in her previous recordings or perhaps any previous country/folk records.
Harris may have taken various departures in this record, that does not mean she forgoes her country/folk routes. The McGarrigle sisters-backed/Harris-co-written closer “Waltz Across Texas Tonight” and the western survivor tale that is “Where Will I Be”, are reflections on her more traditional country routes, only to be complemented by the synthetic and alternative rock textures provided by Lanois. On the other hand, she also translates folkier compositions, such as the Gillian Welch gem that is “Orphan Girl”, the McGarrigle sisters tune “Goin’ Back to Harlan” and the blissful “Blackhawk”, into otherworldly beautiful gems without disposing of her original folky vocal undertones. However, it was the Lucinda Williams gold nugget “Sweet Old World” made an example and a highlight, where Williams herself performed lovely acoustic guitar in the song, while Harris gave a roots-y singing that recalls her early days, accompanied by the echoing piano and electric guitar and a beautiful harmonica performance, flourishing the original’s contemplating, mourning lyrics. All these examples proofed that it is possible for an artist to experiment in their own music and retain their original music roots, without dumbing down the quality of the works, even for veteran musicians such as Harris.
In a nutshell, Emmylou Harris has returned from obscurity thanks to this 1995 masterpiece that is Wrecking Ball
, while introducing another jewel in her already admirable catalog, thanks in part to its dark, rich accompanying atmosphere, and most of all, Harris’ weary yet nonetheless strong and shining vocals. Despite being hailed as a high watermark in her decades-long career, Harris actually did not found much success in the country charts with this album—it never reaches the country albums chart at all and the singles did not have any airplay from country radio—but it is far from a commercial flop. In fact, it actually became her first album to reach the Top 100 of the Billboard 200 and the UK Albums Chart since 1981, earned her a Grammy and new legions of fans to come. Accolades and revived commercial fortune aside, this album proofed Harris herself as not only the establisher of the genre known as alternative country, but an artist who is willing push her boundaries by incorporating unlikely elements into her usually mellow country sound, paving ways for country and folk artists to take risk, most notably Lucinda Williams
’ own 1998 masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
, Bright Eyes
’ stuttering I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
(where Harris also made occasional appearance) and Kasey Musgraves
’ Golden Hour
. Although it is arguable that this is not as good as her early works, you cannot simply expect her to create another Pieces of the Sky
or Luxury Liner
, Wrecking Ball
is simply a shimmeringly beautiful album that is woven with daring experimentations and Harris’ signature vocal beauties, while proofing Harris is still a powerful force in music that could destroy a stone heart like a wrecking ball.
Personal Rating: 4.93/5
Goin’ Back to Harlan
Sweet Old World