It’s been eight years since Gillian Welch’s Soul Journey, which amounts to half of her recording career. But The Harrow & the Harvest, recorded with her longtime creative partner David Rawlings, doesn’t sound labored over, and there’s no sign of the writer’s block that plagued Welch in the interim. It’s as if Welch instead spent the time digging deeper into herself and into the past, emerging with 10 songs that sound as if they were discovered in some archival treasure trove, or simply hewn out of rock.
Playing guitar, banjo and harmonica — Welch is also credited with “hands & feet” — the duo go it alone, with Rawlings’s production lending the songs a hushed, almost eerie, intimacy. Apart from minor flourishes, like the double-tracked vocals on “The Way It Will Be,” this is Welch and Rawlings as they’ve always appeared on stage, their sound full and unvarnished.
The most substantial departure from past records is the vein of free associative surrealism that’s crept into Welch’s lyrics. “The Way That It Goes” starts off in the familiar territory of rural Goth, but after a few verses, she stars mixing in oblique references to “Ode to Billie Joe” and storied Los Angeles eatery Musso and Frank’s. What the one has to do with the other, or with “everybody buying little baby clothes” is something listeners will be left pondering over the many repeats the song easily accommodates.
The Harrow & the Harvest is not an album easily assimilated; the songs sound instantly familiar yet naggingly elusive, like a horizon forever receding in the distance. But the more you walk through the terrain Welch and Rawlings so vividly create, the more you feel at home, even if you’re not quite sure where.