Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Complete Picture

Emmylou Harris - All I Intended To Be (Nonesuch, 2008)

When musicians reach a certain age it becomes tempting to speculate on what might be their creative last will and testament. Much speculation is made that the newest works by Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen might possibly be their last, in spite of the fact that such artists are still in relative youth when compared with the likes of BB King or Pops Staples, who continued to make music right up to their deaths. That this new album from Emmylou Harris seems to bring her remarkable artistry full circle might generate similar conjectures.

‘All I Intended To Be’ demonstrates that Harris has, in her maturity, finally achieved her goals. She is, in her own words ‘a singer of songs, a writer of songs, a strummer of a few chords, as Harlan Howard once said, in search of the truth’. Whereas Harris’ previous two albums masterfully refocused attention on her writing talents, this one presents her as something of an all-rounded. It’s a timely reminder of her abilities as an interpreter, but also restates her continually developing talents as a writer.

Howard’s memorable description of country music as ‘three chords and the truth’ seemed to apply perfectly to Harris’ previous two albums, despite many critics remarking that the sound crafted by engineer Malcolm Burn and her band Spyboy sounded a far cry from traditional conceptions of the country idiom. That enchanting, mysterious sound has been abandoned for this project, which reunites Harris with her former husband Brian Ahern, producer of her first eight solo albums. This news initially pleased me as I’d felt that another album in the same atmospheric style might seem like overkill, but there’s no doubt that the percussive, multi-faceted sound of her work between ‘Wrecking Ball’ and ‘Stumble Into Grace’ is missed here.

This certainly doesn’t mean that ‘All That I Intended To Be’ is a bad album – it’s just that it can occasionally sound conventional and straightforward when compared with its immediate predecessors. It even occasionally sounds clunky – that nasty thudding 80s drum sound and Knopfler-esque guitar frills on the opening ‘Shores of White Sound’ initially suggest the new arrangement might have been a mis-step, but luckily greater subtlety abounds elsewhere. Delicately picked acoustic guitar, slide guitar and brushed drums – those dusty old conventions of Nashville – are given greater prominence here.

This is also largely an understated and sombre collection. Indeed, the muted tone has directed some writers to criticise the album for its preoccupation with loss and mortality. This seems unreasonable to me – are these not suitable subjects for a female writer, in her 60s and burdened by the weight of experience, to address? Is it simply that they are subjects that most younger writers would prefer not to hear about? Given Harris’ insight, clarity and eloquence, she seems ideally placed to transform her own life experience into something universal.

Perhaps a more valid criticism is that her writing is starting to become a little repetitive. ‘How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower’, a collaboration with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, is another song for June Carter Cash, although a little more traditional than the haunting ‘Strong Hand’ that appeared on ‘Stumble Into Grace’. It’s tempting to view the achingly sad ‘Not Enough’, which confronts lost unrequited love, as another song about her relationship with Gram Parsons, but it has broader appeal than this of course. She’s certainly inviting yet more intrusive interview questions on the subject though.

More adventurous writing comes with ‘Broken Man’s Lament’, in which Harris sings comfortably from a male perspective. This was of course once commonplace in the folk tradition but among contemporary writers, only the largely unheralded Sylvie Lewis is making it a major feature of her artistic character. ‘Sailing Around The Room’, a second collaboration with the McGarrigles, is elegant in the carefully delineated shape of its melody and ‘Take That Ride’ touching in its resignation to fate.

Most of the cover songs are shrewdly selected. The unique timbre of Harris’ voice makes it a perfect vehicle for Merle Haggard’s ‘Kern River’ and her rendition proves that she continues to improve as a singer, her voice acquiring fresh nuances with every release. ‘Moon Song’ is certainly one of Patty Griffin’s better efforts and gives weight to Harris’ persistent respect for her work. Harris brings quiet reflection and fresh poignancy to Tracy Chapman’s ‘All That You Have Is Your Soul’.

In her sleeve notes, Harris thanks Ahern for providing her with the ‘comfort zone’ in which to work. I wonder whether that comment might be unwittingly insightful. Most of the musicianship and production on ‘All I Intended to Be’ is more than competent, but it’s hardly imaginative or bold. The arrangements work best when additional instrumentation is introduced – the spectral accordion on ‘Moon Song’ for example, or the steel guitar on ‘Beyond The Great Divide’. Yet none of these contexts really push Harris into any new adventures, as the concoctions of Lanois, Burn and Spyboy certainly succeeded in doing. Some of the supporting players, Dolly Parton, The McGarrigles and Buddy Miller aside, are inadequate foils for Harris’ emotional clarity. John Starling’s duet vocal on ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’ is somewhat nondescript and unchallenging.

There’s a great deal to admire here – and Harris’ poignant reflection is once again enchanting - but it doesn’t quite feel like a towering highlight of her catalogue. As its title suggests, it’s a remarkably neat summation of all of her talents (and it’s also a very pleasant listen), but I suspect I’ll find myself returning to ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘Red Dirt Girl’ and ‘Stumble Into Grace’ more frequently.

No comments: