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Sunday, 24 August 2008

Written in granite: Wrecking Ball

Let's make no bones about this: if push were ever to come to shove and I were put on the spot and asked to name my favourite album ever made, I would have to plump for Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball. There are other records which are perhaps better-constructed, have more layers of meaning, have historic significance... Come to that the two albums Emmylou recorded after this one were made up of her own songs and are utterly brilliant, in many ways even more towering achievements than this, especially within the context of her career(s)... However Wrecking Ball has an emotional impact upon me which I get from no other album; there's something about it which reaches out and moves me, it reduces me to tears. It is also important as the starting point for the journey which led to those extraordinary albums of her own songs, which we'll be looking at in detail later on.

Above all it's an incredibly brave record. Emmylou was in her late forties when it came out and I imagine even she'd admit she'd fallen into something of a rut during the 1980s – like the vast majority of her contemporaries. As ruts go it was a pretty great one, the quality never really slipped too much, it was just that... one album was starting to sound much like the previous one, lovely though they often were. She was hardly in trouble, though; she had a loyal audience and was deeply respected within country music, she'd forged a style and a reputation, she was a star, there was absolutely no need for her to take risks. So of course she responded in the way that only the greatest artists will: she made an album which deeply offended an awful lot of people within the genre. There's a telling moment in the Deeper Well documentary shown on BBC4 a couple of years or so back when a member of the country establishment (I can't remember who now) is asked about WB and basically clams up. He clearly hates it but doesn't actually want to say so because... well, she's Emmylou Harris and she is deeply respected in country music. In the end he mutters "all I'll say about that record is that it ain't country music..." He is, of course, both quite right and totally wrong. It's probably fair to say that this is more of a rock record than a country one. However there's plenty of country in the material; it's just that Emmylou decided to acknowledge that the form was moving on and that she was ready to do something new herself. However any record featuring the voice of Emmylou Harris (and this one features some of the most stunning vocal performances she's ever committed to tape, and that really is saying something) is always going to have some country in its make-up.

Let's start with the cover which I always think is symbolic of what lies within. Well, that's what record covers should be, isn't it? Both on the front, and even more graphically inside the sleeve of Wrecking Ball, we see that Emmylou, having presumably spotted a grey hair and realised that she's no longer in the first flush of youth has decided to embrace this by dyeing her entire barnet grey! Not only does she look absolutely amazing, but here is a first portent that we're in for a genuinely grown-up record, made by a woman who is approaching the peak of her powers and, indeed, about to embark upon an astonishing third proper career as a great songwriter, following on from her second as one of the greatest interpretative singers of the twentieth century and her first as half of one of the greatest of all duet singers, with Gram Parsons (and Dylan and everyone else...) Oh, and before that she'd started out as a folk singer, but that didn't really work out so we won't count it. Having decided upon a conflagration of bridges, she doesn't hold back. To produce the album she calls in Daniel Lanois, best-known at the time as Eno's right-hand man on U2 albums, although he'd also made a name as a producer in his own right, most notably on Dylan's one truly great album of the 1980s, Oh Mercy and Robbie Robertson's solo debut, but also with Peter Gabriel and plenty of others. Lanois is one of a now very rare breed: the auteur producer. In other words if you hire him then you've got a pretty good idea of what you'll be getting. Just as back in the early 1980s if you hired Martin Hannett to produce your record then you could be fairly confident that the drums and bass would be mixed up, the guitars further back and menacing, with lots of delay and oodles of space. Or Phil Spector, where it would not be unreasonable to expect the use of a smidgeon of reverb here and there and a sound of a certain size.

Lanois clearly loved the idea and indeed he wrote three of the songs that ended up on the album, bringing us to the song selection. There isn't a single country standard, in fact many of the pieces are by up-and-coming stars of the generation of country writers on the rise at the time: Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Julie Miller... Plus there are some songs from out-and-out rock sources, which we'll come to in just a moment.

The album opens and your jaw drops, or mine did when I first heard it. This was a few years after the album's release, I must admit. I owned a large number of Ms Harris' earlier albums, having first got into country music after hearing Grievous Angel, like many other people coming initially from a non-country background, but I'll confess that I'd lost interest during the 1980s. Then I started to hear rumours that she'd started doing something special and so I bought 2003's Stumble Into Grace when it came out. After a couple of plays I was besotted with it and immediately rushed out and bought both WB and Red Dirt Girl. I still remember putting the former on for the first time... The guitar riff to Lanois' Where Will I Be? came in and for a moment I had to check the credits to see if Vini Reilly (The Durutti Column) had been dragged over to Nashville. Apparently not, but it sounds like something from the Lips That Would Kiss period. The drumming is stunning, if I remember rightly it's Larry Mullen from U2 playing on much of the album and it's stupendous throughout. So, having opened with a bang, the album takes things up a gear: Goodbye is an incredibly moving song; written by Steve Earle, who also appears, it's one of the great addiction songs, incredibly simple and yet stunningly affecting, especially its punch-line of "was I just off somewhere or just too high? Because I can't remember if we said goodbye..." The arrangement is huge, dark, dense and almost unbearably sad. This gives way to Julie Miller's All My Tears, which speaks for itself and rolls along with its loping gait, followed by the title track, Neil Young's Wrecking Ball and here too, the author makes an appearance. Young's original version was to have appeared on Times Square, which is one of those periodic Neil Young albums that he decides not to release at the last moment, even though it's clear to anyone who isn't Neil Young that they're among his best work (see also Chrome Dreams, the original one, I mean). The reason he apparently gave was that "it didn't have a hit single on it", a more than slightly odd criterion for Mr Young as, were it applied systematically, it would've shrunk his discography to around the size of that of his compatriot Leonard Cohen. The song did eventually emerge on the replacement album Freedom (and yes, it DID have a hit single, Rockin' In The Free World) and very fine it is too. However Emmylou's version is even better, again the sound is huge, spacious and... heartbreaking. Next up is Ms Harris' friend and Rufus Wainright's Aunt Anna McGarrigle's Goin' Back To Harlan. Another incredibly emotional song, superbly delivered. Then comes the first of Emmylou's two contributions, Deeper Well, which sums up the mood wonderfully, er, well.

Emmylou then pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of finding a terrific Bob Dylan song that's not already been covered a thousand times: Every Grain Of Sand was the closing song on Shot Of Love, an album I've always suspected could've been terrific had Dylan only selected a different set of songs from the sessions – there are some terrific outtakes on both the official Bootleg Series and other less legal bootlegs. It is further proof that although Dylan did manage to make some pretty poor records with some very ordinary songs during the 1980s, his genius never truly deserted him for long, and Emmylou does a fine reading and again it fits the album perfectly.

Another of so many highlights of the album is a phenomenally intense reading of Lucinda Williams extraordinary Sweet Old World. Lucinda's own version, on the album of the same name, draws a lot of its poignancy (and it has that in spades, whether or not it was written from immediate experience, as has been suggested, or not) from the rolling simplicity of the arrangement and the way Ms Williams' voice manages to stay light, even when it's on the verge of cracking under the emotional strain. Emmylou's is more obviously dark, mysterious and more than slightly disturbing. The lyric is one of the loveliest I've ever heard, it's beautifully constructed and yet so apparently artless. Lucinda Williams is one of the finest songwriters alive today, of course. Then comes a real turn-up for the books as Ms Harris tackles Hendrix. Now hardly anybody covers Jimi, let alone artists generally pigeonholed as "country". In fact he doesn't generally get enormous credit as a songwriter, probably because the guitar histrionics tend to overshadow the other thing he could do with the instrument and I suspect people are daunted, "what's the point of trying to follow THAT?" they think, understandably. But Emmylou turns May This Be Love into a seething, whirlpool of a track. Then one more song by a writer who was establishing herself on the fringes of the country idiom in the mid-nineties is Gillian Welch's Orphan Girl. Actually Ms Welch is half of a folk duo with her partner David Rawlings rather than a country singer, or else she's a bluegrass artiste... But for me she's a folksinger and a very, very fine one. The song is perfect for Emmylou.

The album draws to a close first another Lanois song, Blackhawk,
and then Waltz Across Texas Tonight, the other song Emmylou herself had a hand in writing, this time together with long-time Hot Band alumnus Rodney Crowell. It's the perfect end to what is an utterly astonishing album. A couple of years later Lanois hooked up with Dylan for the second time and made Time Out Of Mind, which clearly uses a lot of the same tricks, although it's a drier, very masculine record whereas WB... isn't. We'll look at what Emmylou did next in later pieces, starting with 2000's phenomenal Red Dirt Girl, her first album of (pretty much) all self-written songs for almost 20 years suggesting she'd been hiding a complete Pink Floyd light-show under her bushel.

However before we leave Wrecking Ball there's a little more to the story... If you look about you in ways upon which I couldn't possibly comment, it is possible to find a bootleg generally known as The Wrecking Ball Demos. The title is a misnomer as these are clearly not demos but rather early versions, alternate mixes plus 3 outtakes from the album sessions. Generally the songs that did make the album are the same takes minus backing vocals and guest artistes, or with different vocal takes and often substantially different mixes. They're rougher and readier and also superb. Better still, though, we get three more songs done in a similar style: Richard Thompson's How Will I Ever Be Simple Again?, another Lanois song called Still Water and Emmylou's own Never Be Gold, a new version of which has just surfaced on her excellent new album All I Intended To Be, although I have to say that I think I prefer this earlier version. The other surprise is the completely different arrangement of Deeper Well, done as a kind of tribal drumbeat, perhaps not a million miles away from Joni Mitchell's The Jungle Line on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns... You can see why they opted for the released version, which is a little less extreme, but it's staggering and fascinating to hear nonetheless.

So there it is; my favourite album and one that touches me in ways that so few others can.

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