There are few albums that are really true to a genre while also transcending it. It’s a sign of true greatness in an artist to be able to masterfully express not just the technique and semblance of a given art form, but the underlying spirit that animates it, often by bending or breaking the barriers that define the outward aspect of that artform. Wrecking Ball is one such work.
Wrecking Ball is probably the first time in Emmylou Harris’ career that it doesn’t feel like Emmylou is just trying on a genre for size. Previous albums all had their unique stylistic touches, and Emmylou had showed that she could masterfully work nearly any style under the American folk music umbrella. But Wrecking Ball’s a different animal. Whatever subgenres you might want to say it touches on, alternative, americana, alt-country, what-have-you, this is first and foremost Emmylou using and melding the backing music to her
self-expression, not the other way around as it had been for so long in her career. That’s ultimately what makes Wrecking Ball not just Emmylou’s greatest album, but one of the greatest country albums of all time: that pervasive sense that at last Emmylou isn’t confining herself to a particular style or idiom, but is pushing out of those boundaries where her self-expression calls for it. All the heartache, longing, freedom, wistfulness, faith, love that Emmylou had been singing about for twenty five years at that point was distilled into this one album that, before any indebtedness to style or genre, was Emmylou’s own expression.
Aiding Emmylou in this venture is perhaps the strongest set of musicians she’s had on an album yet, not the least of which is U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr., whose martial, snare-and-tom-heavy style lends itself to the grace and gravitas of Emmylou’s music in a way that is probably the greatest contribution to the album’s transcendent status outside of Emmylou herself. It’s probably the first time in Emmylou’s career that the music doesn’t feel like a support for her voice, so much as a partnership with it. Sure, it’s her voice that’s taking center stage, but the atmosphere that she brings forth meets the instruments on a more equal footing than she’d shown on any of her previous work.
Subtle contributions from several luminaries of the music world make themselves known on the album as well, with Steve Earle, Neil Young and Lucinda Williams all lending a hand on each of their own compositions. Of these guest appearances, only Neil’s might be immediately identifiable without reading the liner notes, but it speaks to the mutual respect between Emmylou and these artists that they’re contributing to her interpretation of their material. As she’s done so often throughout her career, her renditions of others’ work become in many ways definitive, the strength of her own voice and expression shining through the words and melodies of others in a way that makes her version not just a tribute or a derivation, but uniquely hers.
In many ways, Wrecking Ball is what mastery of an artform looks like. After twenty-five years, sixteen solo albums and countless collaborations, Emmylou has crafted a masterwork, for any genre. Here is Emmylou as confident as she’s ever been, using the voice that has always been one of the greatest instruments in her genre, but this time, as never before, with an ear for its limitations and the potential within them, the expression that can be arrived at through subtlety, absence, cries, whispers and sighs, with a subtlety that at times borders on breathtaking. It’s a voice that perfectly melds those themes of desire, longing, loss and faith together, and when married as it is to the music that elevates and dwells alongside it, becomes a singular artistic expression that both captures and transcends the ideals of country music.