The Heart Opens Wide Like It's Never Seen Love
38 · 19 October 95
Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball
Tonight there are only two things I really want to do. One of them is personal; the other is listen to Wrecking Ball, Emmylou Harris' new album, over and over and over. It has absorbed me. Its sounds have seeped into the walls of my apartment and my office, and now those spaces ring faintly with the album's aura even when the speakers in them fall silent. Walking around, I'm singing stray lines to myself, like touching my lips with my hand to remind myself of a treasured kiss. Other records pile up, unlistened to, while I bask in the grace and warmth of these songs.
The world I live in doesn't deserve this. The city that surrounds me moves too fast, bends and twists too readily, allows too much ugliness, weakness, brutality and trivial clamor. The world of parking tickets, OJ, train sabotage, sponsorship deals and cholesterol counting is wholly alien to this music, and cannot hold it. The world this art wants is deliberate, is calm. It believes in the inherent nobility of people, and is not disappointed. It understands ordinary circumstances, but treats them only as incidental context for lives that transcend them. It doesn't know genres, contracts, egos, deadlines. It is both sacred and scared. It is powerful, but welcoming. It is inexorable and triumphant.
Back here, even time doesn't work right. I shouldn't have to play this album a dozen times to fill a day. Why should time be so inelastic? If I want to give this album a day of my time, a week, a month, I should be able to. It's worth it. If it will have me for that long, and I it, what right have clocks to hinder our contract? This is between me and the music. Let the world age on around me. I want to live inside the music long enough that when I come out, the world will seem new to me again. I want this album to be rejuvenating, to be the retreat that restores my enthusiasm for everything, but each time it finishes and I find the same garrulous existence still gnawing at the edges of my life, it's almost too much. I push Repeat because that's the only way I have to express my dissatisfaction with so much of everything else. I push Repeat because, having finally found a little corner of reality that makes profound sense, I can't bear to leave.
Describing the details of this record will not convey the experience, will not even come close. Sitting here surrounded by blank diskettes, patch cords, calendars, credit card receipts and mechanical pencils, with the light from my desk lamp picking out the spots on the base of the lamp where the mouse cord has rubbed through the dust, rendering what this album makes me feel into keystrokes seems so inherently impossible that I can't even bring myself to feel frustrated by my inability to do so. Of course I can't. Why would I think I could? I'd have to close my eyes just to begin to enter the state of mind necessary for full communion, and while I do touch-type, we are creatures of backspace, now, and a review written with my eyes closed would cause my spell-checker to file suit. But though I can't describe the most important thing about this album, I'll talk about what I can.
Wrecking Ball is a product of two profound musical forces. One of them, obviously, is Emmylou Harris. Her voice and her musical instincts are impeccable, and for all the other personalities at work in the playing, the writing and the production, the album is redolent with her presence. The way her voice slides from its lower registers into breathy highs; the way it sometimes turns nasal, sometimes hints at menace, and sometimes seems to dissipate like smoke; the way her acoustic guitar intimates chord structures -- all these things fill the album with her magic and the simple puissance of her spirit, like it's your living room in which she's dancing in the photographs in the liner.
When she sings she brushes lightly across words, sketching their shape without necessarily articulating every bend and spike in the letters. This acts like a layer of gauze stretched over these songs, or a sepia tint applied in the processing, distancing the listener from the words, the observer from the artwork, reminding you that art is not a window, and that the surface of the artwork is as important as the subjects rendered. It also turns the text from straightforward narrative to something slightly more abstract, more susceptible to variant interpretations. Swallowed syllables involve the listener in replacing them, and lead to heard phrases that, though different from the words nominally being said, aren't necessarily wrong. "Leather boots pointing up into the sky" could be "leather boots burning up into the sky". What if it was? What does it mean that it claims not to be? In the context of the song, how much difference between pointing and burning is there? "Waltz you across Texas" or "Want you across Texas"? Is it really both, no matter what the lyric sheet says? And when, in "nights down in Mexico", the country name seems to disintegrate in the air between Emmylou's lips and the microphone, isn't that true to the sense in which Mexico, the real country, isn't the emotional setting of the song's events? Assume "Harlan" is "Harlem", and then try to figure out why the narrator is going back.
As much as I feel Emmylou here, though, the complementary force without which this album could not exist is its producer, Daniel Lanois. If Judgment was mine to run, Lanois' afterlife status would have been resolved several years ago, when he and Brian Eno helped bring The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree into being. I'm not a U2 fanatic, but the atmospheric richness captured on those two albums was phenomenal, and the first three songs on The Joshua Tree, in particular, continue to strike me as an enduring argument that fifteen minutes of fame doesn't have to be a bad thing, if the fifteen minutes are done well enough. Wrecking Ball could well be thought of as a sequel to The Joshua Tree. On the face of this, if you juxtapose the images of Emmylou in a quiet Nashville studio and Bono wearing aluminum pants and presiding over a roiling sea of pirate video footage and fetishized defunct East German automobiles, this sounds absurd, but hearing the albums I think the link is undeniable. The questing drama of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and the highlands time-frozen retreat of "Where the Streets Have No Name" have given way to smaller concerns like bookstore jobs, a nice dress, and an old radio on a quiet night, but it's as if the camera that shot the cinematic desert for the cover of The Joshua Tree had simply panned around to shoot the small town behind it, the human settlement that was what the band members themselves saw as they faced the lens.
The other common element from The Joshua Tree to here is U2 drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. His presence, too, is significant. I remember back in U2's early days, back when my sister discovered them and her incessant playings of Boy and October so annoyed me, protesting to her that, for one thing, their drummer couldn't play drums to save his life. Whether you agree with my youthful assessment of Mullen's skills at that stage or not, it's clear that by now a life left in the hands of his drumming would have little to fear. He's developed a distinctive style in which almost-military dignity combines with an accommodating humanity and instinctively expressive dynamic control. His drumming sounds like the internal rhythm of something living, not like the cycles of machines, and the organic skeleton this gives these songs (he plays on nine of the twelve) is integral to their identities, and to the identity of the album as a whole.
And then there are the songs themselves.
The album begins with "Where Will I Be", one of two songs that Lanois himself contributes to the album's cause. The song opens with a shuffling drum part (Brian Blade (who also played on Jane Siberry's new album), making one of his two appearances in place of Mullen, but doing a credible Mullen imitation) and Emmylou's breathy, slightly raw voice, with only a sketchy guitar part filling in the spaces between the two. As the song evolves, more instruments join in, including vocal harmony from both Daniel Lanois and Daryl Johnson (not the Dallas fullback, whose name has a "t" in it, as apt as it would have been to have a real Cowboy on the album). The slow appearance of musical elements, and the way each part continues to maintain its own identity (listen to just the bass line, for example, and notice how easy it is for the ear to isolate it), is very reminiscent of The Joshua Tree, and testament to Lanois' production skill, which produces a rich atmosphere through only the smallest, most usefully placed interventions, enhancing the character of performances rather than trying to alter them, making things sound truer to their natures than, perhaps, even they knew they could be.
The lyric, as written, is something of a meditation on death, repeatedly asking "Where will I be...when that trumpet sounds"? Emmylou seems to me to turn this question into something more general, as if she's asking just "Where will I be?", and, by implication, "Where am I now?", two questions which answer each other in a sort of Zen circle. Why ask where you're going when you don't know where you already are? And, conversely, what does it matter where you are if you're on your way somewhere else? And if you can set this cycle in motion and then manage to extricate yourself from it and stand back and observe it spinning, perhaps it doesn't matter where you are or where you're going.
Next is Steve Earle's "Goodbye". Mullen arrives for this one, and Earle himself shows up to play guitar. Tony Hall plays bass and adds a crucial shaker part, and recording engineer Malcolm Burn, who evidently had a hard time staying behind the console during sessions, plays piano. The glue for all this is the washes of Lanois' electric guitar, turning what, in the original song, must have been bluesy twang, into a sort of translation into music of the breaths and heartbeats of the narrator and the lover being addressed. Emmylou's voice at one moment has the reverent tones of a Christmas hymn, and the next catches and cracks with a bit of country edge. The hollow thwack of Mullen's snare, and its carefully timed echoes, are perfectly matched to the mood of the song.
In its original form, I believe this is a sad song. "I can't remember if we said goodbye", the narrator admits, and this is a grim examination of the disintegration of a relationship, with implicit regret only that the end couldn't have been handled with aplomb appropriate to the good times that preceded it. The way Emmylou sings it, though, I start to think that the question isn't just whether the goodbye was said, but whether the parting even really happened. She turns it into less an apology than an assertion of the lingering bond, and raises the possibility that the two aren't really through, at all. As written the apology is a closed-ended statement, to which the only responses are "Thank you" or silence. As sung, though, the song turns into a question. "Did we break up? Did we stop loving each other? I'm no longer sure; are you?"
"All My Tears", next, is transformed even more dramatically. Reading its lyrics only after hearing it many times, I'm surprised to find out that it's a Christian song, and probably a particularly cloying one in other hands. "Sun and moon will be replaced / With the light of Jesus' face, / And I will not be ashamed, / For my savior knows my name." This is the sort of thing that lurks constantly one dial-spin to your left or right in Texas, where I grew up. Its usual habitat is the glossy repertoire of an over-cosmeticked country evangeliste whose rhinestones and devotion sparkle with similarly artificial exuberance. I can see her singing through a pasted-on smile in my mind, a smile that would crack her make-up if she hadn't been grinning like a doped idiot during its application, as well. She'll be buried that way, eventually, the smile fixed in place for her introduction to the Lord by a combination of extreme piety and a very well-paid embalmer.
Harris and Lanois render this devout mess totally unrecognizable. Emmylou begins the process by glossing over most of the worst lines. Daryl Johnson then adds a sinister, elastic keyboard-bass part that sounds like something borrowed from Peter Gabriel, a pseudo-gospel harmony vocal, and some almost African chanting. Lanois helps with the chant, and adds conventional bass, mandolin and electric guitar to Emmylou's own acoustic, and Malcolm adds a few touches of admirably understated piano. Emmylou's singing is strained and captivating, playing off the harmony and chants nicely. The result is a strangely spooky piece whose focal points are all sonic, but which ends up being powerfully spiritual in a way that the original, if it was done anything like I imagine, could not have approached.
The next transformation goes in the other direction. "Wrecking Ball" itself is a Neil Young song, and Neil even sings backup on it. Apropos of the song's pivotal offer of dancing, this version emphasizes steady rhythm, almost to the exclusion of the music. Mullen's drumming sticks to toms, setting up a persistent rumble instead of a predictable groove. Burn plays tambourine, Lanois adds more percussion, and Sam O'Sullivan operates a roto wheel, whatever that is. The spare musical elements are provided by a little haunting piano, some light-handed Lanois guitar, Tony Hall's quiet bass, and some subtle vibes. The end result pulses, inviting a shapeless dance that is as much an emotional state as any sort of exercise. This is music for dancing for togetherness' sake, not music for dancing for show. I believe Neil meant "meet me at the wrecking ball" to be at least half threat, the picking of an emotional fight, in which case "I'll wear something pretty and white / And we'll go dancing tonight" is an ironic, almost mocking dare. Whether or not that's the case, the performance turns it into a sincere offer with tragic poignancy, a desperate resolution to dance and feel special despite the collapse of things in general into ruins. In this context the pretty dress is a touch of breathtakingly fragile determination, a willful denial of impossibility, and just singing the song is almost a psychological victory in itself.
Next is Anna McGarrigle's "Goin' Back to Harlan". This is the one that, the first couple times, I thought was saying "Goin' Back to Harlem". It's a bizarre and affecting song as "Harlem". The musings about sycamores, riverbanks, the bells of Rhymney seem otherworldly, as if the narrator can't be sure that a blissful trip to the country wasn't somehow a dream. The return to Harlem, then, is done in a teary daze, as if the narrator can't quite believe that she is returning to such a place, even as she knows that she must. The bit in the chorus about rocking the gallows is provocative, and appropriate, but enigmatic. When I realized that she was singing Harlan, not Harlem, the song became all the more moving to me, as it seemed that the narrator, who had been so afraid of returning to an urban slum, was suddenly rescued from that fate, and allowed to go back to some peaceful rural paradise after all. This twist is so effective that now I'm wondering whether the CD really did say Harlem the first couple times, intentionally.
"Deeper Well", next, is one of the two songs here that Emmylou herself helped write. Ironically, it's the least country-ish song on the album. Her voice is processed with a wax-papery buzz to it, and echoed for an unsettling, spacey effect. The music is angular and throbbing, and by the middle of the song has built up into an almost techno-like electro-pulse. The song isn't as explicitly industrial as Melissa Etheridge's "2001", but the effect is somewhat similar. Emmylou's vocal part drops into very low registers in the chorus, nearly devolving to conversation. It never becomes a rap, but there's just a wisp of a threat that it might, which makes the song that much weirder.
Her singing heads to the other end of her register, a high waver that sounds more than a little like Cyndi Lauper's (circa "I Drove All Night", I mean, not "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"), for Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand". Emmylou's double-tracked voice and Mullen's martial drums are once again the centerpieces here, with Malcolm's organ and Tony's bass adding basic ambience, and Lanois, Earle and Emmylou's acoustic guitars staying surprisingly well out of the way for there being three of them. The combination of the organ and the scriptural grandness of Dylan's lyrics ("the flower of indulgence", "the pain of idleness and the memory of decay", "the doorway of temptation's angry flame", as well as the recurrent resolution to "like every grain of sand") combine to give this song the quality of a hymn, and to make me think that routine church services could be improved considerably with the addition of a drummer. And Emmylou in the congregation. Though now that I've said that, it seems pretty obvious, doesn't it?
The album's most traditional-sounding country ballad is next, Lucinda Williams' "Sweet Old World". Lucinda herself plays guitar on it, as does Steve Earle again. Richard Bennet contributes tremolo guitar, Burn plays slide and piano, Lanois operates his usual arsenal of instruments, and Neil Young is back to sing harmony again, and play a little harmonica. I guess this is my least favorite moment on the album, as meaningless a metric as that is, because while the song is beautiful, it seems beautiful in a more conventional way than most of the others.
Perhaps it's just contrast, though, because the next song is Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love", transmogrified into a thick atmospheric roar whose guitar part is almost entirely ambient resonance, not distinct notes. Lanois' guitars, Mullen's drums, and Emmylou and Lanois singing are the only ingredients in this mesmerizing meditation on the lines "Nothing can go wrong, / My sweet waterfall", and the simultaneous simplicity and depth is awesome. The repetition carries over into "Orphan Girl", a prayerful Gillian Welch song whose lyrics consist of little other than an orphan girl's wish to be with her parents again. The percussion track here is again flawless beyond words, with Malcolm playing tambourine, Larry on hand drum, and Tony on stick drum. Lanois' mandolin and dulcimer, and Emmylou's guitar, provide the musical framework, and she and Daryl Johnson duet on the cycling vocal line. As on "All My Tears", the sound of the song tends to swallow up the literal meaning, to the extent that "I am an orphan girl" could be "I am a northern girl", at which point the song becomes a universal plea for deliverance, or even a vote of confidence that deliverance will come.
And if deliverance can come in song form, it arrives immediately. "Blackhawk", the second to last song, another of Lanois', is the one that I find myself singing, involuntarily aloud, most often. The ancillary players are all out at lunch or something, so Lanois, Burn and Emmylou assemble this one all by themselves. A moving requiem to younger selves, this expansive anthem casts the younger selves as mythic figures, and the contrast between their vague identities and such corporeal details as the bookstore on St. Clair she works in, the punch clock, and the "strong arms of the union", is vivid. When the man "slips down into the blast furnace", it's left exquisitely unclear whether he has literally fallen into the furnace and been killed, or whether it's that in his devotion to his numbing labor he's stayed alive physically, but died in spirit. Verb tenses are ambiguous; I can't tell what the narrator's current situation is. This, too, is fitting, as the departures of Blackhawk and the White Winged Dove are tragic no matter how literal or metaphorical. I could probably listen to this song for a month. If songs could launch ships, the oceans would be full by the end of this one.
The album concludes, finally, sadly, with another of Emmylou's own songs, the melancholy "Waltz Across Texas Tonight". Mullen settles into an imperturbable drum gait, Burn, Lanois and Hall set up the scaffolding, and Emmylou gets vocal backing from Kate and Anna McGarrigle. The tune, especially with the harmony parts, has the timeless elegance of an ancient folk song, or what the medieval inhabitants of Texas might have produced to compete with Loreena McKennitt's Celtic excavations, if only Texas' modern culture could be retroactively extended backwards in time a few hundred extra years. I know I'm going through a nostalgic phase in my personal life, in which references to Texas are bound to earn some extra sympathy, but I don't think I'm imagining this song's agelessness. You hear it, too, don't you? Yes?
If you don't hear it, please don't tell me. Maybe you'll hate this album, or it will bore you, or something equally incomprehensible to me, but just don't tell me. Leave me to the momentary illusion that quality and appeal are universal, and that this album is a masterpiece for everybody. Leave me to the fleeting delusion that these songs will drift across the earth, strewing self-awareness, wonder and good will in their wake, transforming a chaotic, squabbling world into something harmonious, kind, rewardingly complex, and achingly beautiful. And if they don't change the whole world, at least leave my piece of it, the piece where they are so effective. Leave it alone, and let me hide in it. I'd rather see the whole world change, but if all these songs can alter is one tiny corner, then if that corner is big enough to hold me, I think, tonight, that will be enough.