It may be that the greatest challenge an artist faces in the arc of a career is deciding when it’s time to change direction.
The great ones seem to seize that moment. In the rock era, hallmarks remain the Beatles and Bob Dylan, both of whom established themselves as masters of a particular form but chose to grow into new identities rather than become character actors. Neil Young, too, and Tom Waits, and Willie; their legends evolved not just from their obvious gifts, but from their willingness, even determination, not to stand still.
Soul Journey is the fourth album from Gillian Welch, who established right out of the box with 1996′s Revival that she and partner David Rawlings possessed a talent and vision that could someday place them among their generation’s very best artists. The songwriting was classic (from “Orphan Girl” to “By The Mark” to “Tear My Stillhouse Down” to…well, pretty much the entire record), the playing impeccable (with aces such as James Burton, Greg Leisz, Roy Huskey Jr. and Jim Keltner supporting), the production (by T Bone Burnett) finely attuned to the music.
If 1998′s Hell Among The Yearlings was not quite up to the same level, it was still a fine record — notable for the duo’s decision to take all the playing into their own hands (save for returning producer Burnett’s keyboards on “Whiskey Girl”), and for a darker, moodier turn on “My Morphine” that foreshadowed what came next.
On Time (The Revelator), they turned deeper inward; Rawlings produced, and Welch delivered the most moving material she’d ever written. They honed the previous disc’s duo-only approach to its simplest, finest point, and applied it to a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. The album’s framework tracks — the timeless opener “Revelator”, the two-part “April The 14th/Ruination Day”, and the epic closer “I Dream A Highway” — carried within them the weight of the world that collapsed six weeks after its July 31, 2001 release. It remains, so far, the best album of this decade.
And a tall order to follow. Thus, it’s no surprise, nor shame, that Soul Journey does not one-up their previous outing; such a feat should not have been expected, or, for that matter, even attempted.
Yet this might still have been a defining point in Welch’s oeuvre, had she and Rawlings chosen this occasion to change direction. Certainly they have proven themselves capable of doing so; their occasional appearances in their Nashville hometown as the Esquires have demonstrated a decidedly different side of their aesthetic, an electric, looseleaf rawness that recasts the context of their passionately careful recordings.
Soul Journey does find them accommodating extended musicianship for the first time since their debut — Leisz returns on dobro on a few tracks, joined at times by erstwhile Son Volt bassist Jim Boquist, Ketcham Secor (from Old Crow Medicine Show) on fiddle, and Mark Ambrose on acoustic guitar — but the shift in sound is subtle, not seismic.
The same can be said of the material — although there is one notable change: For the first time, they reflect their tradition-based original compositions against actual traditional tunes. “I Had A Real Good Mother And Father” and “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor” both fit seamlessly within the ten-song set. (One must credit Welch and Rawlings for resisting the unhealthy trend toward longer albums; theirs have felt complete at ten tracks, save Yearlings, which held eleven).
Their originals include some exquisite little epiphanies. “I Made A Lovers Prayer” is slow, sweet, simple, heartachingly honest and soul-searching in its desire for “just a little more love.” “Look At Miss Ohio” marries a memorable melody to a gloriously defiant tale of a woman who wants to do right, “but not right now.” “One Monkey” is all about the groove, riding a bluesy ramble atop an affirmation of the adage, “One monkey don’t stop the show.”
The overall impression, though, is of status quo, at a time when a decisive left turn may have made a world of difference. The closest Welch and Rawlings come is on the closing track, ironically titled “Wrecking Ball”. It’s not a cover of the Neil Young song that Emmylou Harris used as the title tune of her most strident and celebrated artistic departure back in 1995 — which, to bring things full-circle, also introduced the world to Welch via its cover of “Orphan Girl”. Rather, it’s a rambling, mysterious tale set to a ramshackle arrangement that, at long last, almost qualifies as rocking out.
“I took every secret that I’d ever known/And headed for the wall/Like a wrecking ball,” Welch sings. Would that she and Rawlings had followed such a path on Soul Journey.