Gillian Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest

written by: July 7, 2011
Gillian Welch - The Harrow & the Harvest album cover Release Date: June 28, 2011


The Harrow & the Harvest is appropriately reflective of Gillian Welch’s creative dearth. It is her first release in eight years, but her return is indeed a harvest. This 10-track yield may not be quantitatively much, but each track is a warm, intimate and ultimately affecting experience for the listener. Returning to the roots folk of her earlier works, the album (aside from occasional banjo and knee-slaps) comprises two guitars and two voices: one for each of hers and the other David Rawlings, her longtime musical partner. Forget about The King Is Dead, this is some real folk.

The music is, as always, steeped in early country and bluegrass with hints of bluesy rock in the mix. Quite a similar mix to her brilliant 2001 release, Time (The Revelator), but that one leaned a little more on the rock influence. Opener “Scarlet Town” immediately showcases impressive and tasteful guitar work and interplay between the two musicians. Welch and Rawlings clearly know how to play with each other. Despite the presence of only two guitars, they fill up plenty of space, leaving just enough for atmosphere. The wonderfully uptempo opener stands in contrast to the second track, “Dark Turn of Mind.” This love ballad is so achingly painful—the guitars feel like they’re weeping.

And it goes like this for all 10 tracks: The lyrics tell a story and the instruments express it. The results are downright gorgeous.

Welch’s voice can be appropriately stoic, but it is often melancholic and frail, donning the comportment of the characters in her stories who are often desperately clinging to shreds of hope or completely resigned to misfortune and heartbreak. Rawlings guitar is unlike any contemporary and he is equally dexterous in the fast and slow songs. Though the lines can be complex, they always work with and for the mood. Furthermore, he helps shape a unique identity for Welch’s tunes.

The lyrics, in keeping with the sound, take on a rustic cloak, but at the heart of the songs are themes many can connect with. On “Tennessee,” in which Welch struggles with traditional, learned morals vs. instinctive desires, she declares “Of all the ways I’ve found to hurt myself, you may be my favorite one of all…” The emotion drips from the voice and guitars, easily projecting onto the listener.

Always worth mentioning is the stunning artwork by John Dyer Baizley. A unique piece for him, utilizing only black and a sort of off-white color giving it that aged paper appearance, perfectly reflects the content of the album.

Time (The Revelator) was, and is, an incredible album, which up to this point has been the clear standout in Welch’s catalogue. But, 10 years later, The Harrow & the Harvest is as good and perhaps better. Stylistically, hardly anything new is happening here, but it’s too expressive not to stand out. Music fans and musicians alike will undoubtedly find something to appreciate with this record.

Gillian Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest Tracklist:

  1. “Scarlet Town”
  2. “Dark Turn of Mind”
  3. “The Way It Will Be”
  4. “The Way It Goes”
  5. “Tennessee”
  6. “Down Along the Dixie Line”
  7. “Six White Horses”
  8. “Hard Times”
  9. “Silver Dagger”
  10. “The Way the Whole Thing Ends”