I’ve been writing this blog a pretty long time now: seven and a half years. The problem is, I published pieces on most of my favourite music before I’d found a tone that wasn’t completely insufferable. Here’s a retake of a piece I wrote in 2013 about one of my favourite records ever, inspired by a Twitter exchange I had yesterday.
Something happened to Gillian Welch’s writing between 1996, when she released her debut album, Revival, and 2001, when she released her masterpiece, Time (The Revelator). In 1996, her songs were mostly sepia-toned, frequently sung in character, and narrated in the past tense: stories about hard-scrabble, often rural, lives. By 2001, she had largely abandoned linear narrative and past-tense settings, instead writing in what is clearly discernible as now, but seldom telling stories with a beginning, middle and end.
In the same period, she went from being a promising young up-and-comer to being possibly the best songwriter in the world.
Were these two things related? What was the relationship between them: causative, symbiotic or merely coincidental? And if it was causative, which was the cause and which the effect?
Writing original songs that aim for timelessness and woody authenticity is difficult, particularly if you’re setting them in the past. It’s easy for listeners to become cynical and dismissive. Certainly some dismissed Welch in 1996. Ann Powers (a critic for whom I have a ton of respect and who has written pieces I’d kill to have written) was negative about Revival when reviewing it for Rolling Stone:
“[Revival] is a handcrafted simulacrum of rural mysticism. Most of the songs place Welch and her songwriting partner, the guitarist and vocalist David Rawlings, in settings they could know only from reading James Agee and listening to Folkways recordings. […] Concentrate only on the sound, and these songs will haunt you; Welch’s musical precision is eerie, the mark of a true obsessive so deeply wedded to her subject that she has become it. Ultimately, though, Welch’s gorgeous testimonies manufacture emotion rather than express it.”
Christgau was even less impressed:
“She just doesn’t have the voice, eye, or way with words to bring her simulation off. Unless you’re highly susceptible to good intentions, a malady some refer to as folkie’s disease, that should be that.”
He’s never given Welch the time of day since.
But these were uncharitable reviews, and in Christgau’s case possibly hypocritical: after all, he’d never complained that The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down rang hollow because Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson hadn’t actually served on the Danville Train. He’d never castigated Randy Newman for not having lived through the Great Mississippi Flood when he released Louisiana 1927.
While neither Powers nor Christgau seemed able to hear it, Welch was a young writer of tremendous promise and Revival contained several undeniable successes. Perhaps what was really going on here was a willed failure to suspend disbelief, a refusal to look away from the artist’s bio sheet long enough to properly hear the songs. When Welch adopted a character on songs like Annabelle, One More Dollar and Tear My Stillhouse Down, her middle-class LA upbringing – her adopted parents were writers for the Carol Burnett Show – was an easy stick to beat her with.
Perhaps the reviews got to her, but in the lay-off between second album Hell Among the Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), Welch had significantly altered her lyrical style.
It’s not immediately apparent when you listen to it because the songs are all so much more ambiguous than those on Revival, but there’s very little linear story-telling on Time (The Revelator). Instead there are meditations and recollections, and when the songs do gesture towards narrative, you’re only given disconnected pieces of it from somewhere out of the middle. It’s also a much more urban record than Revival and Yearlings. Here’s a passage from April the 14th (Part 1):
When the iceberg hit, oh they must have known,
God moves on the water like Casey Jones.
So I walked downtown on my telephone,
And took a lazy turn through the redeye zone.
It was a five-band bill, a two-dollar show.
I saw the van out in front from Idaho
And the girl passed out in the backseat trash.
There was no way they’d make even a half a tank of gas.
They looked sick and stoned and strangely dressed.
No one showed from the local press.
But I watched them walk through the bottom land
And I wished that I played in a rock & roll band.
Hey, hey, it was the fourteenth day of April.
It’s a world away from “We lease 20 acres and one ginny mule from the Alabama Trust”.
So if her lyrics did change between Revival and Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), and you grant me that Time is the best record of the three, what part does the altered lyrical style play in making Time the best Gillian Welch album?
Revival showed an already highly developed sense of melody from Welch, and the very impressive singing and guitar playing from both Welch and her partner David Rawlings. But for a songwriter whose arrangements are mostly just two guitars and two voices, the quality of the lyric takes on even great importantce. When Welch and Rawlings came back with Time (The Revelator), the songs were more elusive, more allusive, and richer with subtext.
April the 14th (Part 1) is something of a test case here in that what we’re given is far less important than what we’re not. The song takes place in a recognisably modern world of mobile telephones, vans and punk bands playing low-rent shows, but Welch keeps drawing parallels with three different events that all happened on 14th April: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the Black Sunday dustbowl storm of 1935.
Why is she alluding to these things, though? She goes to see a rock band and then goes to work, then bed – not the greatest day ever, perhaps, but a “ruination day”? What have the events of her day to do with Lincoln, with a disaster at sea and with the Okies?
Despite the references, the song is not about disasters; it’s about the mundane. Perhaps it’s about living out one’s mundane little life in the shadow of terrible events. Perhaps we are being led to conclude that something terrible has just happened to the narrator, or is just about to.
While they’re good songs, with lyrics appropriate to the feel of the music, the songs on Revival are a little neat, a little easy, compared to this. Welch had a tendency to tie them up with neat bows: the narrator of Annabelle ends the song contemplating the girl’s life of continuing poverty and grief after her own death; the narrator of One More Dollar ends up broke and homeless after being laid off and losing all his money gambling. In the world that the songs have established, these were not unexpected endings, and not much was left to be imagined by the listener.
By Time (The Revelator), she’d developed the confidence to write songs that leave questions unanswered. April the 14th (Part 1)’s sister song, Ruination Day (Part 2), does not resolve anything that its predecessor left hanging. Instead, it doubles down on the inscrutability of the earlier song. In Ruination Day (Part 2), the singer removes herself from the story and all that’s left are the three disasters and their consequences. It replaces sadness with anger, sweetness with bitterness, consonance with dissonance. It’s purposely lo-fi; the sound is edgy, filtered, straining. We are left once again to ponder the significance of that date, April 14th, without being told what it means to the singer.
Of course, some might consider raising questions like this and leaving them unresolved to be a cop-out. I think, rather, it was a mark of how much Welch had matured as a writer that she was able to play this game and get away with it. Revival was a fine record, but in comparison to Time (The Revelator), it does feel just a little like she’s working with archetypes and well-worn stories.
Hers is an interesting progression, then, for a musician whose work was once so preoccupied with the past. Rather than continuing to work at achieving a sense of place and time (as Robertson did on The Band’s second album), she instead returned to the world she lives in, rejecting the easy route of folksy archaisms and stock characters, and instead embracing contemporary language and situations.
The late Clive James once noted in regard to Sandy Denny’s writing the “awkward truth” that “to separate yourself from contemporary life is no guarantee of achieving timelessness”. Welch more or less proved James’s contention by coming nearest to timelessness when she’s done the reverse: set her songs in her own time. Whether it was conscious or not, it marked a step change in her work. Time (The Revelator) may continue to cast a shadow over the rest of her career, but that’s the inevitable consequence of having created such a towering record in the first place.