Tag Archives: Hell Among the Yearlings

Soul Journey & Hell Among the Yearlings – Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch may be the greatest working songwriter (I can’t think of a credible alternative), but at least two of her albums are interesting failures rather than works of consistently high quality. They’re her second and fourth, 1998’s Hell Among the Yearlings and 2003’s Soul Journey.

Soul Journey is the more easily understood. Perhaps sensing that Time (the Revelator) was a masterpiece of what Welch and David Rawlings refer to as their ‘duet music’ and that they probably couldn’t top it by doing the same thing again, they embraced a wider range of instruments than their customary two guitars (or guitar and banjo) and two voices.

Initially, this slightly bigger palette of drums, electric bass and guitar and fiddle is welcome. The sound if woody, warm and confident. Look at Miss Ohio, which opens the record is a fine song, and the rhythm section (the drums on the album were all played by Rawlings and Welch; the bass by Rawlings, Welch or engineer Matt Andrews) are very far from timid. Unfortunately they’re also very far from subtle and very far from supple. This is a rhythm section that makes Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot sound like Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey playing with Steely Dan. The ham-handedness is quite charming at first, but over the course of several more songs in this slow, four-square idiom (the unfortunate One Monkey, the somnambulant Lowlands, Wrecking Ball), it becomes very wearisome. Wayside is a bit of an exception — the feel is different, the internal balance of the drums is different; possibly Welch and Rawlings swapped roles for this one — but the writing is a bit flabby. There are more verses and choruses than needed, given the lack of melodic development.

Wrecking Ball requires a bit more comment. It is the album’s big missed opportunity. Something close to a great song, spoiled by a basic track that wouldn’t have got past a third-party producer and some sketchy, messy playing from the sitting-in members of Son Volt and fiddler Ketcham Secor. Perhaps there’s a live version out there from their tours with Old Crow Medicine Show that properly captures the swagger of this slab of heroic self-mythology; the Soul Journey version’s a pallid demo.

So that’s about half the album accounted for. What of the rest? The readings of Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor and I Had a Real Good Mother and Father capture Welch at her most intimate and raw; indeed, with the electrical noise that runs throughout the first and the general gauziness of the second, this is also — apparently — off-the-cuff, lo-fi Welch. Nevertheless, they work; the strength of the (traditional) material and the soft, unadorned performances make them among the album’s most compelling moments. No One Knows My Name (the Carter Family’s Motherless Children, with Welch’s own lyrics) is similarly effective, although a slightly bigger, more polished production.

I Made a Lover’s Prayer recalls the Ryan Adams of Heartbreaker, all mournful harmonica and flatpicked guitar. More of a mood than a song, it is perfect as the album’s penultimate track (although as we have noted, the payoff falls flat). Whether it needed to stretch itself over five minutes is another matter. One Little Song is something else again: Soul Journey’s finest, most indelible moment, and possibly the best song she’s written since Time (the Revelator). This is Welch at her sweetest, her most wry, rueful, optimistic, all at once. I know of no more perfect song about songwriting, or any kind of writing; about the fleeting satisfaction of having pulled something that you can be proud of for a while, until you’re hit by the realisation that you need to do it again, because that’s what writers do. Between them, Welch and T.S. Eliot have said everything there is to say about writing.

Welch first:

There’s gotta be a song left to sing
‘Cause everybody can’t have thought of everything
One little note that ain’t been used
One little word, ain’t been abused a thousand times
In a thousand rhymes

Now Eliot (from ‘East Coker’):

…and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

*

As opposed to being little tiny folk songs or traditional songs, they’re really tiny rock songs. They’re just performed in this acoustic setting. In our heads we went electric without changing instruments.

That’s been Welch’s standard line on what happened between Hell Among the Yearlings and Time (the Revelator) to make the latter album so distinct from the former. In a piece I wrote in the first few weeks of this blog (one I’m not too thrilled with in retrospect), I pointed to a slightly different phenomenon: Welch and Rawlings abandoned murder ballad-, mountain music-style lyrics and started writing lyrics that, while using plainspoken contemporary language, were slices out of the middle of a narrative, or were associative, meditative, hallucinatory and contemplative (I Dream a Highway is all of these things). They also reinstated verse-chorus forms, having largely abandoned them on Yearlings. This change of approach may simply have been the other side of the coin to Welch’s ‘going electric’ concept, but while that’s a cute phrase to feed an interviewer, it doesn’t really get at the substantial change in writing approach that had happened in the space of one album cycle.

Hell Among the Yearlings finds Welch and Rawlings running their original conception of their music into the ground. The majority of the songs are strophic in form, if not in lyric, and have eddying, incantatory, repeating melodies, with refrains rather than choruses. Perhaps this was a conscious attempt to bring greater authenticity to their writing, and when it works, the songs do draw strength from this employment of a cussed, nuggety form. Rock of Ages and (my favourite) Caleb Meyer are the strongest examples of this kind of thing – not coincidentally, they are the only songs from Yearlings to feature regularly in the setlists Welch and Rawlings played on their 2011 tour. I’m Not Afraid to Die is stark and haunting and is another top-class effort. But songs like Winter’s Come and Gone and Miner’s Refrain don’t quite cast the spells they attempting to; My Morphine is a little too studied to be truly spooky; One Morning’s lyrical conceit (dead soldier on horseback, turning up at his mother’s house in Lexington ‘as work I begun’, brought home by his horse — ah, bless) is closer to “End of the Trail”/El Cid kitsch than Welch perhaps realised, making the song unintentionally comic:

One mornin’, one mornin’ the boy of my breast
Came to my door unable to rest
Even in the arms of death.

Sorry, but no. This approach, this aesthetic, was misconceived, wrongheaded, juvenile even. Abandoning it was Welch’s artistic salvation. If she hadn’t done so, she’d have ended up down the same dead-end road as Cahoots-era Robbie Robertson.

So Hell Among the Yearlings, impoverished melodically by her own high standards and with a lyrical approach that too often comes over as gauche, is the only true failure in her canon, and even so it contains songs that would be career highlights for lesser talents. But the lesser albums of major talents are often as fascinating as their unqualified successes, and I revisit both albums as regularly as Time (the Revelator), an album so overwhelming it doesn’t seem to fit easily into daily life. It requires the time to listen to and absorb the whole thing. A few songs lifted from each of Yearlings and Soul Journey, added to some choice cuts from Revival and The Harrow & the Harvest, on the other hand, makes a perfect playlist.

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Gillian Welch, 2001

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Gillian Welch, living in the now

Queen of the fakes and imitators
Time’s the revelator.

 Gillian Welch, 2001

Between 1996 and 2001 Gillian Welch largely abandoned the in-character, past-tense storytelling of her first two records and begun writing demotic lyrics in an unidentified but discernible ‘now’.

Between 1996 and 2001 Gillian Welch turned herself into (in my view anyway) the best songwriter in the world.

Are these two things related? And was the relationship between them causative, symbiotic or merely coincidental? And if causative, which was the cause and which the effect?

Playing music that places original songs within a traditional form and sound is not easy. At worst, it sounds like a pose; if the performer can’t bridge the gap between who he or she ‘really’ is and what they claim for themselves in song, the audience can become cynical and dismissive. Certainly some dismissed Welch in 1996. Ann Powers in Rolling Stone was negative about Revival:

[The album] 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 even more so:

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.

But these were uncharitable and unimaginative reviews, saying more about the reviewers than about the record. After all, Christgau never complained that John Fogerty hadn’t really been working for the man every night and day and he never claimed that The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down rang hollow because Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson hadn’t actually served on the Danville train. In fact, while neither Powers nor Christgau heard it, Welch was a young writer of tremendous promise and the album contained several undeniable successes.

What was really going on here was a willed failure on the part of some of her reviewers to suspend disbelief, a stubborn refusal to look away from the artist’s bio sheet. Consider an analogy: no actor can convince a viewer that she is the character she portrays on stage or screen if the critic simply refuses to let go of the fact that they recognise her face and know her real name long enough to actually engage with the performance. Yet Welch’s middle-class LA upbringing – her adopted parents were writers for the Carol Burnett Show – became something of an albatross.

Perhaps the reviews got to her, but in the lay-off between second album Hell Among the Yearlings (a record that still feels like the most thin and spotty album she’s made) and Time (the Revelator), her masterpiece, Welch had not only improved as a writer but had also 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), just meditations and recollections. And when the songs do gesture towards narrative, you’re only given a piece of it, from somewhere out the middle. It’s also a much more urban record than Revival and Yearlings. Here’s a passage from April 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.

This is a world away from ‘We lease 20 acres and one ginny mule from the Alabama Trust’.

*

So if it’s clear that her lyrics did change between Revival/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 on Welch’s part, and the singing and guitar playing of her and partner Dave Rawlings was also highly impressive for a debut. But for a songwriter whose arrangements tend to be kept to two guitars and two voices, the only thing left that she could improve was her lyrics. And they did improve: more elusive, more allusive, and richer with subtext.

April 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 (mobile telephones, vans, bands playing low-rent shows), and Welch keeps drawing parallels with three different events that all happened on April 14th: the assassination of 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. 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; the narrator of One More Dollar ends up broke and homeless. In the world that the songs have established these were not exactly unexpected endings, and not much was left to be imagined.

By Time, she’d developed the confidence to write songs that leave their questions unanswered. April 14th Part 1’s sister song, Ruination Day Part 2, does not resolve anything that its predecessor left hanging. 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 these issues 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 way and get away with it. Revival was a fine record, but in comparison to Time, it does feel just a little like she’s playing with stereotypes and well-worn stories, although the lyrics do not particularly harm the songs, which would be compelling on their musical merits alone.

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 – and no one has come close to matching his work in that idiom), 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.

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 has come nearest to timelessness when she’s done the reverse: set her songs in her own time. I’d argue that her decision to do so, conscious or not, was an important step in the creation of her magnificent early-noughties work. Time (the Revelator) may continue to cast a shadow over the rest of her career, but it’s the inevitable consequence of having created such a towering record.

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Gillian Welch, in the now. ©John Patrick Salisbury