Tag Archives: Rolling Stone

Left of the Dial – The Replacements

What’s this? Wasn’t I meant to be writing about British folk? Yes, I was. I’ve got half an entry on Bill Fay saved in my drafts folder. But this morning on my way to the office I listened to Left of the Dial and on my first day back at work after a holiday, low in mood and feeling unwell, it made me feel as energised as it did when I first heard it as a teenager. So that’s what we’re going to talk about tonight.

I’ve talked about my love of Tres Chicas here a couple of times before, even recently. They’re a little-known country-singing trio that made two records a decade ago. Even then they were all music-biz veterans. Lynn Blakey, the most prolific of the group’s three singer-songwriters, has been making records for over 30 years.

Blakey was a touring member of the Georgia indie band Let’s Active in 1983-4, and it was during that time that she met Paul Westerberg and inspired one of his greatest songs, Left of the Dial. Different sources tell the story differently, but this is what Westerberg had to say about it to Rolling Stone:

Left of the Dial is the story of this girl, a guitar player, Lynn Blakey, who toured with Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active. We got to be friends. She wanted me to write her a letter, but I never write letters. I figured the only way I’d hear her voice was with her band on the radio, left of the dial on a college station. And one night we did. We were passing through a town somewhere, and she was doing an interview on the radio, left of the dial. I heard her voice for the first time in six months for about a minute. Then the station faded out.

It’s pretty cool knowing the back story to the song, but if Left of the Dial were just a paean to Lynn Blakey, it wouldn’t quite be what it is, or mean so much to so many. It’s not even just a love letter to college radio. Above all, Left of the Dial seems to me to be about the endless movement of a young band on the road, the excitement, the hardships, the possibilities, the romance. It’s about the bittersweet feeling of knowing something probably won’t happen, but treasuring the possibility that it just might.

Westerberg’s great gift was to be able to harness that kind of romanticism to noisy, sloppy rock’n’roll (and then to let it show on the quiet acoustic songs – only Neil Young is Westerberg’s match at being able to switch from full-on rock to quiet acoustic and sound utterly himself when doing both), and for all that Left of the Dial’s parent album Tim was the most produced Replacements record to date, it’s still endearingly messy. After all, the Replacements were never about tightness or technique. They were about the excitement of a captured moment. While there’s a lot wrong in technical terms with the studio recording of Left of the Dial (the band always sounded slightly out of control, even at moderate tempos, but surely they didn’t want their guitar sound to be quite so tinny, or the drums quite as lacking in body?), in every important sense, Left of the Dial is perfect. Listening to it makes me feel like I’m twenty years younger, about to embark on all the adventures life in a rock’n’roll band can offer.

the-replacements-book-e1457719925267
The Replacements: l-r Paul Westerberg, Chris Mars, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson

Joni Mitchell from Blue to The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Earlier in the week, before being semi-distracted by the news that teenage favourites Belly have reformed and will be touring the UK in summer 2016*, I’d been spending some time with an entirely different old favourite, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It got me thinking a lot about Mitchell and her work in the early 1970s, the era when she had a pretty-hard-to-dispute claim to be the greatest singer-songwriter in the world. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start at the begining.

Mitchell came to prominence in the late 1960s as a hippie folkie, after more established stars including Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie began covering her songs. Possessed of a piercingly pretty soprano voice and a wide range of alternate tunings for acoustic guitar, Mitchell was soon a minor star in her own right, becoming properly established as a pop artist with third album Ladies of the Canyon (which contained the hit Big Yellow Taxi and her own version of Woodstock, which had also been covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and Blue, which was hitless in pop terms, but confirmed her as one of the pre-eminent singer-songwriters, a bedsit favourite for ever more.

Blue is an astonishing record: melodically and harmonically expansive, yet always feeling intimate and warm, sung and played with a rare combination of stunning artistic self-confidence and devastating emotional vulnerability. No one was writing and playing at her level in 1971 – not Neil Young, not Paul Simon, not James Taylor, not David Crosby (whose music is probably the nearest stylistic comparison to Joni’s), certainly not Bob Dylan, and not even Carole King.

But Blue should have been a warning to her fans. This sound and style that everyone that connected so hard with everyone was not the final destination of her art but the starting point for the journey she’d be on for the rest of the 197s0s.

Mitchell has remarked that after she released Blue other singers stopped covering her songs as they’d grown too hard to sing. And, in technical terms, California and A Case of You do require the ability to perform some vocal gymnastics (no more than was required for a garage band to take on, say, I Want to Hold Your Hand though). What was more problematic for singers was that the new songs contained increasingly subjective and personal imagery and were melodically harder to pin down or hang on to. They were harder to sing from an emotional point of view, and were an awkward fit within a general repertoire. Once heard, The Circle Game can be sung back by anyone, however tin eared. But even Little Green or River, simple as they are by Blue‘s standards, are a lot more slippery. The Last Time I Saw Richard is all but uncoverable.

For the Roses, released the following year, is usually painted as the transition between Blue and the twin jazz-pop albums that followed: Court and Spark and Summer Lawns. Each is more properly seen as a complete thing in itself. On For the Roses, Mitchell’s tunes continue to get more idiosyncratic, with longer melodic phrases repeated less frequently, and the lyrics begin to leave out the first-person I in favour of the second-person you (Barangrill and Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, to take the first two songs that came to mind, both do this). Arrangements, meawhile, are dominated by Tom Scott’s woodwinds. Its best songs (the two mentioned above, plus the title song and Woman of Heart and Mind) are as good as anything off For the Roses‘ more storied predecessor, but the album remains undervalued – it doesn’t pluck at the heatrstrings as expertly as Blue, and it doesn’t quite play as the jazz-pop record it might have been if the arrangements didn’t lack a rhythm section.**

Court and Spark added that missing ingredient, in the form of the LA Express’s John Guerin (drums) and Max Bennett (bass), as well as the Crusaders’ Wilton Felder (also bass). The added propulsion turned the delightful Help Me into the biggest US hit of Mitchell’s career, and made Court and Spark her biggest-selling album. Despite the charms of its hit single and similar material (Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Jusr Like this Train and Trouble Child), I’ve never been entirely thrilled with Court and Spark. Maybe I just listen to it the wrong way. It was the last of the four albums I heard, and I’d fallen head over heels for The Hissing of Summer Lawns by the time I did hear it, so I tend to hear little elements within the music and lyrics as merely foreshadowing Summer Lawns and even 1976’s Hejira (the high, almost pedal steel-like guitar on Same Situation, played I guess by Larry Carlton, predicts the work he’d do on the latter album’s Amelia; People’s Parties suggests a growing familiarity with a mileu she’d explore in detail on Summer Lawns).

For many, though, Court and Spark is the best Mitchell ever got, and it’s a visible part of pop culture in a way Summer Lawns will never be. There was a band called The Court & Spark. There is a consultancy firm called  Court & Spark. Court & Spark handmade textiles are purchasable off the internet. That I know of, there is no consultancy firm called The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

For an album that begins with the apparently carefree In France they Kiss on Main Street*** and ends with a kind of benediction in Shadows and Light (albeit a wary, eerie-sounding one), Summer Lawns is an extremely dark album. The author had by now grown familiar with the affluent Southern California world she came into contact with in People’s Parties, a world of big-time pushers who keep a stable of young women entranced by dope****, of trophy wives and jet-setting businessmen, of southern belles come to California “chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn”, a world of money, drugs and spiritual ennui.

The album’s lyrics, taken in total, are Mitchell’s finest achievement as a writer – she’s at such a high level throughout, you sometimes have to gasp. She can be as impenetrable as Ezra Pound in Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow:

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
In flames our prophet witches
Be polite
A room full of glasses
He says “Your notches liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

and as economical as Carver the next in the title track:

He gave her his darkness to regret
And good reason to quit him
He gave her a roomful of Chippendale
That nobody sits in
Still she stays with a love of some kind
It’s the lady’s choice
The hissing of summer lawns 

The songs are essentially poems set to music, with refrains rather than choruses. Stanzas (a better descriptive word than verses) seldom contain repeated melodic phrases, instead comprising one slowly uncoiling melodic line, in the manner that she’d be working toward since Blue and that she wasn’t finished with, even at this stage (Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus are all to come before Wild Things Run Fast and Mitchell’s return to pop forms).

At the time, reviews (most notably Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone) praised the lyrics and slammed the music:

If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell’s interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production.

Forty years on, it’s easy to laugh. Except, this review was just one (large) factor in the forbidding reputation Summer Lawns has cultivated down the years and still hasn’t shaken off. When I was 20 or so and starting to investigate Joni records, Blue was the obvious classic, emotionally accessible despite dense lyrics and complex melodies, but The Hissing of Summer Lawns had an off-puttingly difficult reputation.

In fact, the music of Summer Lawns is way more seductive and less intrusive than it is on Court and Spark, where the LA Express can come off as cheesy, or at least dated. Think of Car on a Hill and that alto sax phrase of Tom Scott’s, that held high note that begins the phrase: it’s pure mid-’70s sitcom theme. Put to darker use on Summer Lawns, the band (which didn’t include Tom Scott, incidentally) avoid cliche nearly altogether, working in an idiom they invent as they go along, responding to the moods of the lyrics and Mitchell’s gorgeous chord changes. A listener’s ability to draw pleasure from Hejira, Reckless Daughter and Mingus, meanwhile, will depend on that listener’s tolerance for Jaco Pastorius’s hyper-kinetic fretless bass playing (and that chorusy overdriven tone of his). The Hissing of Summer Lawns for the most part presents no such problems (partial exception: Skunk Baxter on track 1).

I can’t finish this piece without mentioning the albums’s second track: the astonishing The Jungle Line, a meditation on the urban artistic life and its intersection, or lack thereof, with the primitive, as embodied in the work of Henri Rousseau. Mitchell constructed the track over a field recording of Burundi drummers, and other than that distorted sample, the only other instruments are her newly purchased Moog synth and a faintly strummed acoustic guitar. The sound of the Burundi drummers, after In France They Kiss on Main Street had implied the record would be something akin of Court and Spark part 2, is an unforgettable shock. It divides listeners to this day, but I can’t help hearing it as crucial to the album, thematically and musically. It was, needless to say, years ahead of its time: 10 years before Peter Gabriel’s work with African rhythms, and 10 years before Graceland. It’s the bravest moment in a fearless album.

As I said up top, Joni was in a class by herself in the first half of the seventies. Perhaps, perhaps, Judee Sill’s self-titled debut is better than any of Joni’s work because of its added humour and comparative lightness of touch. But that’s one album. Joni managed to knock out four masterworks, one after the other (five if you include 1976’s Hejira). Who else did that? Paul Simon? John Martyn? Stevie Wonder? Maybe. For me, Joni’s the champ.

Joni Mitchell in 1974

Mitchell in 1974

*I got tickets, by the way
**Except for The Blonde in the Bleachers, where Stephen Stills played bass and drums
***The guitar playing on this song, by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan, created an extremely negative impression on me when I first heard the album. Unlike Skunk’s work with the Dan, which at the time I hadn’t heard, it’s pretty cheesy, with a horrible fizzy distorted tone that sounds like it’s been DI’d. Nowadays  I wouldn’t change it, but I was, what, 21 when I first heard it and thought I knew an awful lot about what rock ‘n’ roll guitar should sound like
****Edith and the Kingpin is possibly the darkest piece on the album, but I can’t be the only one who hears in the song’s insistence on ending in the major key the idea that this time the Kingpin has met his match

Into the Mystic – Van Morrison

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of the veteran US rock critic Robert Christgau. He’s practically the last of his generation still doing what he does at anything like the pace he worked at in his youth. He wrote for most of career for the Village Voice, but he’s also contributed to Spin, Creem, Esquire, Playboy and Rolling Stone, and more recently online for MSN’s music site, where his writing was the only thing on the site that wasn’t half-arsed. Willfully eccentric though his views may sometimes be and gnomic as his two-sentence capsule reviews often are, he’s the originator of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock criticism. His reviews carry weight because he’s heard more or less every notable release since the late 1960s (certainly up to the start of the internet age).

I very seldom share his opinions. I love loads of records he’s panned (for example, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name), and find his enthusiasm for, say, the New York Dolls or modern Bob Dylan somewhat baffling (‘Love & Theft’ and Modern Times both A+ records? Hell, no!). But there’s a few records to which he’s given A+ reviews down the years that I agree with him wholeheartedly about: After the Goldrush by Neil Young, Paul Simon’s self-titled debut solo album, Television’s Marquee Moon, and our subject today, Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Christgau’s definition of an A+ record is: ‘an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut’.

I prefer a simpler definition. A record that couldn’t be improved upon by subtracting or adding anything to it. Perhaps it has a song or two that are a notch below the best on the record, but still, the whole is stronger for the presence of them than it would be without.

Most of the records I think of as perfect were not conceived as major commercial statements: Judee Sill, Joni’s Blue, Paul Simon, John Martyn’s Inside Out, Fred Neil – these are small, intimate, personal records, not ones that aimed for the mass market or tried to make big, generalised statements. When you try to appeal to everyone, it’s very hard to make an album that’s a coherent, satisfying listen all the way through. Even the Beatles only got near it once, with Revolver, which is damn close to perfect, but is perhaps let down very slightly by a couple of weakish Harrisongs (Love You To and I Want To Tell You) and the inherent difficulty of making songs as disparate as Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, I’m Only Sleeping and Love You To live together on one album, and that’s just the first four songs!

Moondance is an exception to this. John Lennon once described Imagine as the sugarcoated version of his solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Well, Moondance is the sugarcoated version of Astral Weeks. It has all questing, Celtic romanticism of Astral Weeks, but with condensed running times, repeated choruses, horn charts you can sing along to, tight performances and the sort of flawless engineering (by a young Shelly Yakus, his first (!) lead engineer credit) and production you just don’t come across any more. It’s the sort of music that puts a smile on your face, the sort of music that should play in pubs during long, damp afternoons, the sort of album of such sustained quality that picking one song as a highlight is close to impossible.

But if I had to – and for the purposes of this post, I did – I’d choose Into the Mystic, which I’ve loved since I first heard it for John Klingberg’s bass line, Van’s passionate, joyful vocal, John Platania’s guitar arpeggios in the bridges, and those glorious saxophones (I love their low-pitched, rising response when Van sings ‘And when that foghorn blows’ – so simple, so inspired). Astral Weeks has become the canonical Van Morrison record, the favourite of critics, poets and budding songwriters with a literary bent. Moondance is the Radio 2 staple, the people’s choice. This time, just once, I reckon the people are right.

Image

On the canon

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little aside on the idea of a canon in popular music:

By this term I mean all those ‘classic albums’ made by ‘classic artists’, the sort of music lionised and covered in depth by BBC Four and Mojo. For a guide to who’s considered canonical, just look at the cover stars of Mojo over the last few months (Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Jam, the Smiths – from which we conclude that someone at Mojo really likes Johnny Marr). The worth of the idea of a ‘canon’ in pop music has long been a contentious issue. For me, it’s an inevitability. It’s simply there. There’s a canon, more or less, in every art form. Of course one would emerge from popular music. However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t interrogate it, or that we shouldn’t be aware of the processes by which a record/artist becomes canonical, the distortions created by this process, and the nature of the gatekeepers to ‘canonicity’, from the print press to the record companies that reissue some records and not others – after all, if no one can hear a record, it’s rather less likely to become part of the canon.

When I was eighteen I went off to university to read English at UCL. At UCL, all first-year undergads (at least in the English department) follow the same programme of study, no choice in the matter. You do a module of Old/Middle English (that is, you read Dream of the Rood and The Wanderer in the original Anglo Saxon, but a translated Beowulf – because even a certain academic in UCL’s English department isn’t that cruel – and then stuff like Gawain & the Green Knight, written in a Middle English dialect that makes Geoffrey Chaucer’s writing seem as easily comprehensible as Dan Brown’s). You do a module of foundation texts in English: Paradise Lost, The Rape of the Lock, The Prelude, Gulliver’s Travels, Bleak House, The Waste Land (there were a couple more but I forget – maybe Tristram Shandy or Boswell’s Life of Johnson). You do a module on critical terms and theory.

And you take a module called, imposingly, Intellectual & Cultural Sources. Which could carry the alternative title: ‘Squeezing As Much About the History of European Literature and Thought Into a Student’s Head As We Possibly Can In Twenty Weeks’. This is a whistle-stop tour through: Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, St Augustine, Boethius, Dante, More, Montaigne, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Marx & Engels, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Woolf and Barthes. Whew. That’s a lot of knowledge to drop on an eighteen-year-old, an awful lot of dead white males.

And it is. It was, and still is, since the course has scarcely changed since I was there 13 years ago. The Western Canon doesn’t change much in 13 years, and the list of works that UCL’s big kahunas think are absolutely essential to read before you go on to study anything else hasn’t changed much either. I don’t think we studied Epistemology of the Closet in 2000, which they do now (and it’s a welcome addition to the list in that it may alert some of the more addled students to the DWM-ness of the programme of study they’ve just gone through).

All of which would seem sensible enough. No one can read everything, and it’s not a controversial opinion to state that Shakespeare is more important than Kyd, even if you like Kyd more.

The problem comes when we don’t interrogate this canon at all, when we just blindly accept it, and particularly when we don’t move beyond it. These writers and their works are important. But every time we focus on them and put everything else to one side, we engage in a process that makes those few chosen works a little bit bigger and more important, and everything else a little more marginalised. If you marginalise something enough, it gets forgotten, and then no one reads it. The canon in pop music doesn’t have the same status as the Western Canon does in art, literature, philosophy, classical music and so on, but it seems pretty unarguable that it exists. It’s reinforced in radio playlists, in the type of music books that publishers will touch (‘Another book on Dylan? Sure! A book on Judee Sill? Well, we just don’t think there’s a market out there’); in the broadsheets and rock monthlies (as I noted a couple of weeks ago re: Mojo and Uncut); in the major online music sites (all of which regularly publish top-100 lists which hardly vary from Mojo‘s or Rolling Stone‘s).

There are a couple of major difference between popular music and literature. It takes dozens or hundreds of hours to read a book. It takes four minutes to listen to a song. If you’re the kind of person that wants to find out about music, a relatively small investment of time is needed to do it. Set aside an hour and you can listen to a few songs each by, say, the big four thrash bands. If you like it, you can go further. If not, then you can stop there. But it’s so much easier to fit that kind of listening into a busy life than it is to read outside of the canon or mass-market contemporary popular fiction, just because of the difference in the time it takes to consume the art: you may, like me, frequently hear a voice in your head saying, ‘How can you justify spending your time reading X again when you’ve still never made it all the way through Finnegans Wake?’ (and I haven’t). But the ease and speed with which you can listen to music you’ve never heard before means that the judgmental voice inside you is more liable to keep its opinions to itself.

Secondly, writing a novel is a major job of work. It takes a long time. Way, way longer than it does to read that novel. It is exceedingly unusual for a writer to tap into something greater than themselves or to push themselves to the edge of their talent every day for six months, a year or more to produce something truly timelessly classic if they themselves are not that order of talent. It just doesn’t happen. In pop music, musicians, producers and songwriters do it all the time. There are thousands of wonderful songs by artists whose only real consequence is that they made that one great record. And that’s part of what makes popular music what it is: how democratic it is. Three minutes of greatness is possible for just about anyone.

My only real objection to the formation of a rock/pop music canon is that it tends to focus on those acts that consistently made strong albums and marginalises the makers of classic pop singles or individual songs (since not all get released as singles), especially if they only made one or two. Sure, if you want to know about the most widely agreed-upon great works in post-rock’n’roll pop music, if you feel like that’s an important and worthwhile thing to do, you need to know about Revolver, and Pet Sounds, and What’s Going On and Blue. That’s fine. They’re all fantastic records and I wouldn’t want to be without them. But it’s worth taking the time out of your day – worth moving outside of the canon – to hear Mouse & the Traps’ Sometimes You Just Can’t Win. If you really dig that song and want to hear more by them, there’s more out there. You may conclude that the genius of Mouse & the Traps doesn’t extend beyond that one record. But just hearing that one song will, I guarantee you, improve your life a small amount. The Beatles and Beach Boys and Joni and Marvin will still be there tomorrow.

Image

St Michael Overcoming Satan, John Flaxman, UCL library

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.

Image

Gillian Welch, in the now. ©John Patrick Salisbury