Any fan knows that Emmylou Harris’ voice is as unmistakable as your own best friend. It is a kind of melodic breathing – soft, guttural, with whispered high notes and mournful, complex depths. This album shows that, after all these years, the strength of that voice is undiminished.
This largely self-penned album reaches a high with ‘My Name Is Emmett Till’, a track based on real events in America’s history, telling the unsettlingly dark and powerful story of a race killing in the Deep South with only sparse descriptions and short, restrained images. Hearing her sing “My mother kept the casket open for the whole wide world to see” can’t help but make me cry for all the pride and regret she injects into the line. Elsewhere she describes a singer heading out “with three chords and the truth” – showing how she can still snap a perfect sentence out of nowhere. However, the openness of these self-written tracks is not as explosive and ethereal as her classics like ‘Boulder To Birmingham’. Rather, it is a case of occasional lyrical gems amongst otherwise decent tracks.
Like much of Emmlou Harris’ work there are a range of styles being covered in this album. From gutsy country, to ballads, rock and earnest Appalachian spiritual styles. Where sometimes this has worked well – giving her albums a richness and exciting eccentricity – in this case it doesn’t happen as well. Perhaps because she has relied more on her own writing, rather than the covers and collaborations which always added another layer of creativity to her sound. Although individual tracks have substance and drama, the album as a whole does not and it took me a while to look past that. After all, with her ear for good production and trademark heartstring-pulling voice there is no way she would have produced a bad album – just maybe a less than perfect one.