In a recent concert, Gillian Welch wryly noted that a fan had brought to her attention a fact about herself she had never considered. Namely, that as a writer she has two great themes: flowers and death. If pressed for two words to describe Welch’s latest offering, Hell Among The Yearlings, you could do worse than to say “no flowers.”
The album-opening “Caleb Meyer” tells the graphic tale of a would-be rapist slain by his intended victim. Shortly thereafter, “One Morning” etches the indelible image of a wayward son returning home, dead and bloody and still astride his mount. Like many an Appalachian song, and the English and Scottish ballads that inspired them, Welch’s grisly new tales have a dreamlike quality, a paradoxical lightness that transforms their horrific subject matter into bewitching surreality.
The secret to this alchemy seems to be that Welch has learned the rudiments of clawhammer banjo and begun composing in the style. More fluid and lyrical, less staccato than the finger-picked bluegrass approach to banjo, the older clawhammer style readily yields a baleful, primitive sound more blues than bluegrass, as any Doc Boggs fan can attest. On “The Devil Had A Hold Of Me”, Welch captures the childlike simplicity and deep tragic sense that are inseparable, indeed, one and the same, in this style.
So, yes, Gillian Welch and partner David Rawlings are still in their “revival” mode. Indeed, Yearlings distances itself far more from the modern pop idiom than their Grammy-nominated debut, Revival. Similarly, the pared-down, largely duo performances (two guitars or guitar and banjo) and “live” production style give Yearlings a much less polished, more immediate feel.
But all is not death and destruction. There’s also dissolution. In fact, this topic seems to have an unnatural appeal to the rather fresh-faced Welch and Rawlings. Borrowing the narcotic languor of the Revival track “Paper Wings”, the duo sing a song of failed romance between a user and his chemical paramour, “Morphine”. The song all but floats on opiate wings while Welch and Rawlings unfurl a blissed-out yodel. “Whiskey Girl” likewise lists toward a euphoric underworld of temporary charms.
But it’s on “Good Til Now” that they fully realize their delirious intentions. With Rawlings’ pianistic guitar lending its usual, quietly breathtaking palette of color, Welch sings in a diaphanous drawl of the lure of dissolution and one man’s final surrender thereto: “Good-bye darlin’/I been good ’til now.” When Rawlings adds his vocal harmony in the third verse, you realize how peculiar his identity is in this duo. So seamlessly joined, so sympathetic in spirit are Rawlings’ harmonies that they’ve become both definitive and invisible.
With Hell Among The Yearlings, Welch and Rawlings have asked a bit more of their newfound fans. They’ve dug deeper into the past and found there an idiom peculiarly suited to a darker vision than modern pop forms are given to. It’s a vision Greil Marcus writes of as belonging to “the old, weird America.” Funny how true it feels to the new, weirder America that rolls around each day.