In her 20 years of recording, Emmylou Harris has evolved from country’s hippified saint of progressive country to the much revered matriarch of traditional music — a cowboy-booted Mother Maybelle for the ’90s, lauded as a spiritual godmother to today’s roundup of literate singer-songwriters. But in typical fashion, Harris has refused to retire quietly into the role of elder stateswoman. She has, instead, recorded an album that proves, yet again, she is the only woman in country music who continues to grow creatively and significantly as an artist, commercial appeal be damned. The result, the highly eclectic Wrecking Ball (Elektra/Asylum), is the biggest stretch of her career. Produced by Daniel Lanois (best known for his work with U2, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan), the album plucks Harris from the safe ground of pristine country ballads and acoustic rave-ups and plops her squarely in the middle of idiosyncratic, New Age-y pop rock.
Thematically, this isn’t that far off Harris’ usual mark, relying on material by some of her favorite writers, including Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and the McGarrigle Sisters. But while she’s built a career on introspective, left-field songs, never has Harris assembled such a gloomy, austere, and yet profoundly spiritual clutch of tunes. From first to last, the album strikes a dreamy, otherworldly tone that borders on the surreal. At times, the combination of Lanois’ production and Harris’ ethereal soprano — so ragged on the top end now that she’s pared back her full-throated delivery — gives the record a spooky effect.
Spooky and, for the most part, exquisitely beautiful. Lanois’ own ”Where Will I Be,” with its mandolin-heavy sylvan melody, military drumming, and apocalyptic lyrics (”I walked through the teeth of the reaper’s grin”), is particularly haunting. As is Julie Miller’s ”All My Tears,” which weds tonalities and textures from different cultures (a mock Native American chant, a chesty hip-hop bass) with lyrics of redemption in the next world (”When I go don’t cry for me/In my Father’s arms I’ll be/The wounds this world left on my soul/Will all be healed and I’ll be whole”).
Harris and Lanois recorded the album in both Nashville and New Orleans, using a band that included U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. The program loses freshness only in the songs most heavily overdubbed, and suffers from Harris’ at times slurred and mumbled enunciation, her worst ever on record. Only a careful reading of the lyrics (which finds a curious line, ”Addiction stays on tight like a glove,” appearing in two songs) reveals them.
For all its melancholia, Wrecking Ball is also oddly uplifting. Like the melodic title tune, the album is a metaphor both for celebration and for the sadness of breaking down the old to welcome the new. In this bold and not always exhilarating experiment, Harris has begun traveling the next road of her remarkable odyssey. A-