illian could have come down from the mountains after Oh Brother and made the step into the wind that would have carried her to prosperity. Lines were clear, doors were open. It was her songs with David Rawlings that were the highlights, for heaven’s sake. It was her presence that made Krauss and Emmy Lou shine. Time (The Revelator) was a burning of bridges and an end of communication at a time when possibilities were clear and present. Anything that ends with a 14-minute voice and guitar symbiosis of the quality and mood of “I Dream A Highway” isn’t about sunrises and opportunity. Gillian wasn’t just trying to strip country back to its bones, she was trying to strip herself. And she got so close. So close.
But where do you go from there? I don’t think there’s doubt that Gillian reached the bottom of something during the course of Time. Soul Journey comes wrapped in cobalt blue, childish drawings and warm-sea-green, the grainy black and white of her first two albums gone, the stark plain late-afternoon colours of Time gone, the dust and dusk gone. The cynic sees that Acony is under Warners’ wing now and cries foul play. The listener looks a little closer and realises what you see is not as important as what you hear. Gillian never wanted to stay in Nashville anyway, she finished the last record wanting “to die with a hammer” in her hand. She curses it time and again here too.
After the musical and spiritual reductionism of her austere past, a tiny flourish of bass, drums, harmonica, fiddle or slide guitar makes Soul Journey sound like a leap into the future. How deep is that kick-drum? How electric that last guitar? How much fun is there in performing these songs? Where has the solemnity gone? Why should she still be tortured, precisely? There is light and ease here and for once it is not thrown into harsh relief by shade and hardship. Some people will not like this. “What good is my journey if I miss out on eternity?” is the question of “I Had A Real Good Mother And Father”. Maybe there is no eternity. Maybe it is foolish to spend your life hollowed with shadows. Maybe, knowing this, you should turn your journey’s path elsewhere. Gillian wishes she were “in Frisco with a brand new pair of shoes.” In her amended arrangement of the traditional “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor”, she sings “no one here has had the blues like me” and it is the past tense here that is key.
And so Gillian Welch takes her voice, often lone and true as if she no longer needs the strength of David Rawlings’ harmonies to hold her up, her voice of beaten copper, her frictionless monotone, her voice that likes to drink beer, that would neither melt nor cut through butter but rather spread it, and she wraps it here around redemption, a shy glance backwards to her family (“my mother was just a girl 17 / and my father was passing through / doing things that men will do...”) and her demons. “Gotta be a song left to sing” just for the joy of letting it be sung, “everybody can’t o’ thought of everything.” “Look At Miss Ohio” admits she “wants to do right but not right now” and the drums and guitar and organs attest that this is for herself, that right is for somebody else, that it can wait. It starts with a downward glance and had you not heard “Ruination Day (pt.2)” you might mistake it for misery. “Drive to Atlanta / live out this fantasy...” forlorn until one and three quarter minutes in when the drums, languid and firm, strike in, and the sorrow you thought was due evaporates.
She was always good at repetition, at combining melody and harmony and rolling them over into country drone, but Rawlings is replaced here on half the tracks by a fiddle. “One Monkey”, then, is post-country, a refrain and little else pushed to point, strangely echoing “People Get Ready” and The White Album, almost a climax on the last four bars. “Here comes the freight train” but we’re not tied to the tracks, we’re encouraged to ride it on outta here. What happens when the quiet, dark-eyed girl wakes up and throws open the curtains, lightens her eyes? Do those who treasured her dark eyes feel betrayed? Those eyes aren’t dark for you. It’s explicit on “Lowlands”; “I’ve been in the lowlands too long... no fault but my own,” and that electric bass hook that ends the refrain is pure blues. What was she doing at the bottom? Why did she stay there? And now she’s getting out like Polly Jean did in New York. “Wrecking Ball” would be Dylan going electric only we can care about Gillian like we could never care for Robert Zimmerman, and so it’s Neil Young instead, tetchy and full of brimstone, eyes on the road, foot on the past, ragged and charged, the hammer-in-hand intent of last time’s ending taken through, “left home / headed for the wall / like a wrecking ball”. Soul Journey might sound downbeat and lonesome, wistful and dusty, but this is gospel music compared to what went before. Time (The Revelator) was country’s assassination, and this is a resurrection of sorts, not for the whole of country, floundering in the face of hip-hop on a global scale, retreating to bluegrass and the Appalachians, but for Gillian’s country, for Gillian’s soul.