Eight years ago, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings released the exploratory and occasionally misunderstood Soul Journey, where Welch took a more directly personal stance in her writing as the duo injected a shade more vitality (and electricity) into their old-time musical presentation. Maybe the album’s mixed reviews negatively impacted Welch, or maybe her creative well was lowered by a quartet of excellent albums over a seven-year period. In any event, Welch was beset by writer’s block that short-circuited every attempt to craft a follow-up. The trend was reversed in 2009 when the pair switched spots on the marquee and released the well-received A Friend of a Friend as the “Dave Rawlings Machine.”
Subjugating her role in the partnership must have been just the tonic for Welch, because The Harrow and the Harvest stands with the best of their work together. Like Soul Journey, The Harrow and the Harvest finds Welch writing as a more active participant rather than detached observer, like the melancholy heartbreak victim in “Dark Turn of Mind” or the hard love/hard luck girl in “Tennessee.”
The inevitable flow of life is a familiar theme on The Harrow and the Harvest with a trio of songs offering interestingly similar titles and messages but distinct musical frames — the sad acceptance of “The Way It Will Be,” the jauntily jaundiced “The Way It Goes” and the loping drawl of “The Way the Whole Thing Ends.”
The Harrow and the Harvest departs from Soul Journey with Welch and Rawlings maintaining an acoustic profile but, like the best of their work, they modernize their old-time Folk/Bluegrass texture with a contemporary lyrical perspective (“Becky Johnson bought the farm, put a needle in her arm/That’s the way that it goes, that’s the way …”). The song-craft and execution on The Harrow and the Harvest are up to the duo’s self-set high bar, which bodes well for Welch’s bound muse and hints at exciting potential for the upcoming tour.
GILLIAN WELCH AND DAVID RAWLINGS play Coney Island’s Moonlite Gardens Wednesday, Aug. 31. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.