It’s utterly feasible that a first-time listener would assume Gillian Welch to be a dead-and-gone artist from the genre of Depression-era mountain music. She plays the role, alongside partner David Rawlings, to a “T,” incorporating antique guitars, Southern colloquialisms and a hint of drawl. In fact, the Los Angeles born and bred artist excels at the art of deliberate craftsmanship in more ways than one. Musically speaking, she shapes devastation into something startlingly simple and profoundly bittersweet.
Like her previous work (including several contributions to the O Brother Where Art Thou? sound track), everything on Time (The Revelator) has an Appalachian backbone. Song structures derive from the standard bluegrass “boom-chuck” style of a plucked bass note followed by a strum. But bluegrass it ain’t; the majority of tracks unveil themselves gracefully, established by Welch’s clean guitar chords and embellished with Rawlings’ understated yet knockout solo work. Paired with their eerily flawless harmonies (at times Rawlings’ vocal parallels are so subtle you don’t even know he’s there), the effect is haunting.
But it’s getting harder to believe Welch’s fictitious role as ’30s musician. On Time she begins to incorporate the contemporary world — a feat skirted until now. One live track ingeniously placed in the middle of the lineup finds itself longing to embrace the modern. Although folksy in feel, the voice of “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll” truly wants to be the hip, up-to-date thing. Another song’s lyrics make references to a fax machine, plastic cups and plastic bags — three objects that never would’ve shown up on 1996’s Revival or 1998’s Hell Among the Yearlings.
The narrators in Welch’s songwriting have always spoken from a place of ostracism. After all, she’s titled this album based on the concept that “time will tell,” an idea likely articulated from a blighted speaker. This idea of exclusion continually emerges, be it through the story of a failed rock ’n’ roll band, a farm girl shunned because of her poverty or an attempt at monetary survival in bleak circumstances. Often this ostracism takes a turn toward the darkening; this too brings evolution into Welch’s repertoire. More minor and dissonant sounds prevail, as exemplified on the standout “Everything Is Free” (or everything is worth nothing), in which crushing lyrics are achingly mirrored by Rawlings’ darkly saturated solo. No matter the thematic specifics, throughout Time Welch thrives at sculpting devastation into despairingly stunning sounds.
E-mail Kyle Norris at [email protected].