Gillian Welch's voice and lyrics have a way of stopping you in your tracks and making you listen no matter what she's singing about. In the case of Time (The Revelator),
this effect is augmented by her smart decision to include no lyric sheet. Normally, hearing such lines as "When the iceberg hit/ Wasn't much to know/ God moves on the water like Casey Jones...," you could be forgiven for a swift dive for the cheat sheet in your zeal to figure out what the hell was going on. As it is, you just have to pay attention and be prepared for the fact that meaning is not always literal and self-evident here.
The songs on Time (The Revelator)
offer assorted vignettes of those staples of the folk and country tradition: doom, struggle, tenacity and transcendence (the latter often mixed with a fair amount of desperation). Welch's tales are at once current and atemporal "Everything Is Free," for example, is almost certainly "about" the difficulties of being a musician in the world of Napster, but its core realization "We're gonna do it anyway/ Even if it doesn't pay" points to the universal predicament of anyone who's doing what they love and probably getting ripped off as a result. "What will sustain us through the winter/ Where did last year's lessons go?/ Walk me out into the rain and snow" is as old as the seasons and as timely, desolate and scary as today's headlines.
Time (The Revelator)
comes three years after Welch's previous album, Hell Among the Yearlings,
a period in which Welch experienced a few music-biz ups and downs herself, from working on the blockbuster "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack (her celestial version of "I'll Fly Away" with Alison Krauss, as well as her considerably less ethereal rendition of "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby" with Krauss and Emmylou Harris, are both nominees for the Country Music Association's Vocal Event of the Year award) to weathering the disappearance of the label she previously recorded for amid the majors' merger-mania and going on to launch her own, Acony.
Perhaps it's those adventures or perhaps the fact that all the album's studio tracks were recorded in RCA Studio B in Nashville, home to historic recordings by such artists as Elvis and the Everly Brothers but in many of the tunes, the trials of musician life fill the role old-timey music usually reserves for flood, famine, fever and other catastrophes. On "April the 14th/Ruination Day," assorted apocalyptic horrors, all of which occurred on April 14 the sinking of the Titanic,
Lincoln's assassination, the worst storm of the Dust Bowl era, etc. form an uneasy backdrop to an ill-starred band's sleazy-dive-from-hell tour. "Elvis Presley Blues" suggests that an artist can ultimately hope for no greater victory that than of The King dying like steel-driving John Henry, happy in the knowledge of having beaten the machine, however fleetingly.
There's plenty of sweet vocal harmony (with partner David Rawlings) and the sort of Swiss-watch bluegrass precision Welch's fans have come to expect, but on Time (The Revelator),
Welch and Rawlings (who co-wrote all the tracks) also venture into new spaces. The most controversial such foray is the closing song, "I Dream A Highway," all 14-plus minutes of it, which strings together often-enigmatic verses in a looping, meandering journey. There are those who have issues with this length and relative non-linearity. On the other hand, Welch and Rawlings performed it live (and full-length) as their final encore at the Fillmore recently, and the hall-packing crowd stood rapt and barely breathing for 14-plus minutes, which suggests that the song has found its audience. Like the rest of the album, "I Dream A Highway" continues to reveal new encapsulated gems after dozens of listens.
Time (The Revelator)
is ostensibly a solo album, but gives every evidence of being a near-telepathic collaboration between Welch and Rawlings, in which every element is carefully balanced to give the songs maximum impact. The unexpected harmonic flights can be breathtaking, and some of Rawlings' guitar solos are heart-stoppingly gorgeous but never out of place. Taking over from T Bone Burnett, who produced Welch's first two albums, Rawlings brings the same sensibility to the board, crafting the perfect setting for each song and showing just exactly what two voices and two acoustic guitars can do.
Welch and Rawlings have garnered a fair amount of press for bailing from the major-label world and launching Acony in order to pursue their (musical and business) vision (see "How Gillian Welch Avoids Getting Screwed"
). Time (The Revelator)
makes it abundantly clear why this was worth doing.