Friday, 21 March 2008
“WHEN THE ICEBURG HIT…”: An Appreciation of Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator)
“Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name,
Lord I can’t go back this a-way”
-The Kingston Trio
i) “Who could know if I’m a traitor?”
It was the penultimate track Everything is Free that first drew me to this CD by country artist Gillian Welch. At first my fascination confused me; I didn’t find myself at all in sympathy with Welch’s theme, that its become harder and harder for artists to make a living these days. (“They figured it out, that we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.”) While I certainly wouldn’t claim to match Welch for creativity, I’ve never been paid much for any artistic endeavor I’ve ever pursued and reached the ‘gonna do it anyway’ point without thinking about it too much. Everything is free? I don’t see the downside. “I can get a straight job.” Yeah, join the bloody club girl!
Finally it struck me it wasn’t Welch’s subject that grabbed me so much as her tone. In a genre stuffed with tearjerking laments to dead dogs, Welch had cut through to country’s real heart – the point world-weary resignation becomes almost a Zen state. (“Try to make a little change, down at the bar.”) The song ends with her defiantly figuring it out, “I’m gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.” There was a shoulder-shrugging toughness in the face of hard times that had no place for sympathy nor time for sentimentality. Just like blues, country started as a poor people’s music. And poor people can’t, quite literally, afford such indulgences.
Listening further I realised that, though such a tone pervaded the album, the types of songs were very different - and it was really only one type which interested me. A more accurate (if less catchy) title for this screed might be ‘a critical appreciation of somewhere between half and two-thirds of this CD’. It’s not just that they’re recorded in different styles or have different tempos, it’s that they come from different worlds. For example, Red Clay Halo is a character song, sung in the first person and standing or falling on the sense of reality it conveys. We’re asked to visualise the red clay dust on the guy’s boots, a detail picked out to convey authenticity. The other songs are symbolist and multifaceted. The red in My First Lover recurs through different objects capturing the singer’s attention, indeed the objects are only there to illustrate the colour which floats through the song standing for something in its own right – an opposition to “that white wedding gown.”
If Red Clay Halo was a picture, it would seek to convince you that you were looking through a frame into real space. If many of the other songs were pictures they’d be strange Symbolist/Cubist arrangements, where symbols and objects floated in splendid isolation with no concern for normal rules of time, space or motion. Red Clay Halo has musical and vocal lines as straight and direct as the character, while the lines from the more metaphysical songs are twisted and interwoven. In fact you stop listening to them as separate lines, and focus instead on the inter-relationship between them.
Lyrically, pretty much the same thing happens. The line “saw a wheel within a wheel, heard a call within a call” sums things neatly up. Lines and phrases recur during and even between songs, sometimes with shifting words. (Listen out for “sails in rags with the staggers and the jags” for example, and no, I’ve no idea what ‘staggers’ or ‘jaggs’ are either!) The songs virtually finish each others’ sentences, in fact at one point they do that quite literally. (Ruination Day is Part Two of April the 14th and picks up the same line, even though the songs are in different styles and rhythms.) At the same time there’s as many paradoxes and contradictions, where every line seems to be stalked at some point by its own opposite. Every barb becomes double-edged, and ambiguities interbreed with other ambiguities… I like to imagine I’ll be diving to the bottom of this well, and coming back up with lungs still full of air and the magic wishing coins. I’ll probably just muddy the surface for the sake of some small change, but I’m willing to try anyway.
The CD often sounds the way a dream sequence in a film feels, where the edges of the frame washes out, apparently simple phrases taking on a numinous significance and everything happening with stately slowness. It also reminds me of a bright winters day, where everything’s lit with an almost forensic clarity but with an absence of warmth that creates an eerie sense of unreality. (There’s even some un-country references to winter, as we’ll see.)
Welch’s particular sub-genre is sometimes referred to as ‘neo-traditionalist country’. (Though Wikipedia attempts to lumber her with the horrific splice term ‘alternative neo-traditionalist country’!) It’s unlike alt.country, which works more like a punk’s spirit came to inhabit a country musician’s body. Neo-traditionalism tries to conjure up an alternative reality where Nashville never happened, and we never left the simpler unadorned sounds of Hank Williams and the Carter Family. (Welch’s previous album was tellingly titled Revival.)
Songs are littered with references to old country artists (such as Johnny Cash) or quotes from old songs. (For example the “they were one, they were two, they were three, they were four..” section is from The Kingston Trio’s 500 Miles.) This self-conscious referencing of past mythology is something I often find annoying in rock music, when served up by U2 and others. But rock music is supposed to be the soundtrack of modernity and innovation. Country, conversely, has the look back in its very marrow. It’s music that’s always had at least one eye on the past.
However, country may just have different pitfalls which are equally deep. You can easily end up like a folk purist; in trying to reconstruct a dead tradition you assemble a perfect fossil of what was once a living animal. But Welch’s triumph is not to shy from but to accentuate the perils and failings of this approach, at times seeming to insist on its impossibility the same time as she pursues it.
Welch takes such concerns head on in the near-title opening track Revelator, where she describes herself variously as “a pretender’, “a traitor” and finally “Queen of fakes and imitators”. However the full line is “who could know if I’m a traitor?, Time’s the revelator”. Or, in other words, the rest of the CD will reveal all. But for now only time knows, and time ain’t telling.
ii) “I wished that I played in a rock ‘n’ roll band”
The next song, My First Lover is ostensibly the story of Welch leaving her first boyfriend. However, it’s notable that she doesn’t leave him for anyone or anything else – the refrained line is “and she’s free.” Moreover, a combination of the elusive colour red and the Steve Miller song Quicksilver Girl inspires her decision, suggesting she didn’t merely swap one man for another but give up such human concerns for a life dedicated to music.
This implicit idea is taken up more clearly on the later April the 14th, picking up on the red metaphor with red skies and her visit to the “redeye zone”. A kind of cousin to Everything is Free, it details her inspiration to become a musician coming from watching a loser band (“sick and stoned and strangely dressed”) playing in a dive bar. When the song starts Welch is merely visiting the bar. But by the time it ends she’s shifted to clearing up like she works there. The song fits into a long tradition of songs where artistic talent is bestowed like a curse, falling unasked and leaving the victim to wander forever barred from leading a normal life. The song conveys this combination of curse and calling quite brilliantly.
But the event is also bookended with bizarre references to icebergs, shootings and Okies, themes taken up further in ‘part two’ Ruination Day. This starts to make more sense once you realise that April 14th was the day Lincoln was shot, the Titanic sunk and the ‘Black Sunday’ when a giant dust storm sparked a massive migration of farmers from Oklahoma. However this doesn’t mean that it’s a commemorative song, or that Welch is asking us to wear a poppy for some specific historical incident. The somewhat surreal image of Okies fleeing icebergs should be something of a clue that these events are being treated as images, to mix up and juxtapose, not mere chronological lists. The Titanic sections focus on how “far from home” its survivors were, like victims of a Biblical flood.
By unifying into one day every bad thing that befell the Earth, Welch has created a metaphor for the Fall - after which we are all lost in the water, miles from home. By including the Okies she carries the suggestion that this also meant the end of the golden days of country, where the music became rootless, dislocated, inauthentic. But by folding her own fall into musicianship into the moment, she creates a choice paradox - by picking up a guitar she was forced to join with a tradition she might forever be cut off from, yet her only chance is to play her way out.
Such themes are reminiscent of Dylan’s late 60s albums The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding. Turning back on the hallucinogenic grotesquerie of his earlier years, Dylan resolves to “try to tell it like it is with no need of pranks.” Similarly Welch looks fondly back upon the time where Elvis just “put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air”. But Dylan’s once disdainful sneer has transformed into a yearning cry, which puts the emphasis all on the “trying to.” Sometimes the hardest thing you can do is just sing something simple. Welch sums it up with the line “think I’ll move back down to Memphis, and thank the hatchet man who forked my tongue.” Welch wants in her heart to sing Elvis’ direct sentiments, but marooned in the modern world, her tongue can only speak in allusion and metaphor. In both cases the words contain balances and nuances, both within and across songs, which rely upon repeated careful listenings. But this, the very subject of my praise, is also presented by the singer as an encumbrance, a kind of curse.
iii) “Step into the light, poor Lazarus”
The final track, I Dream a Highway (audaciously long for a country track at fourteen minutes) is in some ways a counterweight, the ‘answer’ song to such questions. Though the parade of symbols follows no narrative, there is a kind of temporal chronology at work – from the “moon in the mirror”, through “twilight” to “blind and blistered by the morning white” of the day she finally walks out into. The album’s called Time, but what kind of time are we talking about? Revelator was unable to guess the future. In My First Lover not just the future but even the present were absent, the point where the action moves offstage. April the 14th suggested life was locked inside a cyclic, recurring crisis. I Dream a Highway is linear, as linear as the highway that forms its central image.
The song’s mood also counters much of what has gone before. The first verse is “John he’s kicking out the footlights, the Grand Ole Oprey got a brand new band”. Typically double-edged, it refers to the time a drunken Johnny Cash smashed up the Grand Ole Oprey stage. Yet the song slows down the moment of destruction, bathes it in a tranquil glow. Against April the 14th and Ruination Day, the overriding tone is one of redemption, of a life lived to the full. (“Drank whiskey with my water, sugar in my tea.”)
But of course a highway can be traveled two ways, back (“back to you love”) and forward (“step into the light”.) And alongside the highway is the image of the “winding ribbon”, with no obvious up or down. The paradoxes that haunt earlier songs are here in spades, a getaway car that’s merely “an empty wagon full of rattling bones”.
And what of the “you” the highway is taking us back to? There’s repeated references to a Lazarus-like dead love, in some ways a mirror to the left lover in My First Lover. However, despite Welch’s penchant for such mirroring, to bring back the hazily half-remembered figure here doesn’t really fit. Some lines seem more to refer to Welch’s personal and musical partner, David Rawlings, for example:
Which lover are you, Jack of Diamonds?
Now you be Emmylou and I’ll be Gram
I send a letter, don’t know who I am
Such identity confusion seems reflective of their previously-mentioned habit of playing and singing in such an intertwined way you can’t really tell who’s doing what. But Rawlings is clearly neither dead nor reborn.
As noted earlier, the song refers to Johnny Cash, and an earlier track to the death of Elvis, “all alone in a long decline.” Elvis is even coloured in the same silver and gold as the highway and ribbon. All of these may be part, but only part, of the big picture - for it feels as though Welch is singing about something far greater than any single individual.
Despite the references to Hollywood the song takes place in rain and snow, and asks “who will sustain us through the winter?” But just as Welch manages to bring back Lazarus, it is he who sustains her. Lazarus is the whole of country music, yet simultaneously more than that. David Monaghon described Dylan as “calling on modern man to see the spiritual virtues that are to be found by looking in the past.” Lazarus is these, Lazarus is everything that has been expunged and drained from country music; a heart which once beat openly but is now buried under a shroud of WalMarts and multiplexes. Like an Arthurian King, the world is in winter without him. But memory maintains our connection. While we are capable of dreaming a highway back to him, he’s in sense revivable. Can Welch pull of the task she’s set herself, and make music worthy of the grand tradition? And can country’s heart be revived and rewoken? Ultimately, it’s the same question.
The album opens with “darling remember” and closes with “I dream a highway back to you”. But both songs are equally about the future. Welch contends the only way to look forward is to trust the past with your back. She doesn’t skimp on the knives and poisons that populate the past, instead she learns to live with them. Don’t deny the past’s mistakes or wish they could somehow be annulled but accept that they happened, and live today accordingly.
“What will sustain us through the winter?
Where did last years lessons go?
Walk me out into the rain and snow.”
World-weary resignation finally reached that Zen state.