Release Date: Apr 26, 2011
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Country, Alt-Country, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Contemporary Country, Progressive Country
Emmylou Harris and her fans have had much to celebrate in recent years. Already a Country Music Hall of Famer (inducted in 2008, long overdue) and everyone’s bucket-list duet partner, Emmylou has nonetheless continued to push in new artistic directions. Now in her mid-60s, what other female country artist (or female artist of any genre, for that matter) has stayed as consistently relevant as long? While her male contemporaries, such as Willie Nelson, put the songwriting pen away years ago to settle for interpreting the works of others, Emmylou has taken the opposite course, increasingly relying on her own songs and creating progressive aural palettes.
After she first came to the attention of discerning music fans with her contributions to Gram Parsons' first solo album in 1973, Emmylou Harris spent over 20 years as one of the finest interpretive singers in American music, approaching material from a variety of composers with a thoughtful intelligence that matched the natural beauty of her voice. Then after breaking new creative ground with 1995's Wrecking Ball, Harris set out on a surprising new creative journey -- while previously she wrote songs for her solo albums only on occasion, now her compositions began to dominate her recordings, and Harris has revealed that she's as gifted a tunesmith as she is a vocalist, writing with a clear eye and an unforced lyrical and melodic beauty that's a fine match for her voice. Harris wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 13 songs on 2011's Hard Bargain, and the album is full of cleanly drawn stories of people struggling to rise to the challenges of life, ranging from characters who are homeless ("Home Sweet Home") or wrestling with the aftermath of tragedy ("New Orleans") to Harris' own memories of touring with Parsons ("The Road") and a scandalous murder that galvanized the civil rights movement in 1955 ("My Name Is Emmett Till").
If you didn’t know who Emmylou Harris was, and you met her at a bar and asked her about what she did for a living, you probably wouldn’t believe a word she said. Right from the very beginning, and seemingly without even trying, her career has been all but mythological in its scope. Over the past 40 years, she’s sung with Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Mark Knopfler, Linda Ronstadt and Willie Nelson – just to name a few – while at the same time creating an impressive body of solo work that would be the envy of anyone in the business.
Her voice revealing cracks as fine as her white hair, Harris actually sounds better — more open and passionate — on Hard Bargain than she has since starting her career. Speaking of which, her salute to mentor Gram Parsons, ”The Road,” is lovely nostalgia, and there’s a rare flash of fun cornball humor on ”Big Black Dog.” Her grief over the 2010 death of friend/musician Kate McGarrigle (”Darlin’ Kate”) is palpable. Some of the story-songs are drippy, but that voice remains dry.
Over the latter half of a career that has spanned four decades, Emmylou Harris has gravitated toward spare, acoustic ballads that highlight the ethereal qualities of her distinctive voice. Though that style has resulted in some exceptional work, including 2008’s All I Intended to Be, it’s also made her output somewhat predictable. Her latest, Hard Bargain, stands as a pleasant surprise, then, because it regularly kicks up the tempo and gives Harris ample opportunities to prove that she can still belt and growl with the best of them.
Emmylou Harris works her voice like a well worn but still loved piece of clothing. On Hard Bargain, it’s frequently too nasal though to fit quite as snugly as that old sweater and jeans. It’s still expressive though often muddied. That said, there are pluses. The latest in a long line of studio ….
Nashville's harmony constant wrote/co-wrote all but two of the 13 tracks on her latest career high, though the Ron Sexsmith cover titling Hard Bargain demands its very own songbook. Gram Parsons ("The Road") and "Darlin' Kate" McGarrigle bookend the album's touring musician's lament ("Home Sweet Home"), from Southern Gothic ("My Name Is Emmett Till") to a Raising Sand-like spell ("Six White Cadillacs"). .
These self-penned songs aren’t the match of Emmylou’s highest standards. Nick Barraclough 2011 After a 40-year career which has generated over 25 albums, countless collaborations, twelve Grammy wins, membership of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the undying gratitude of several figures in country music, it’s only fair that Emmylou Harris has earned the right to a bit of self-indulgence. Alas, though, often self-indulgence doesn’t work.
It’s surprising the American Association of Anesthesiologists hasn’t chosen Emmylou Harris as the best voice to hear when awakening from surgery. It’s hushed and wistful, pining and a little dreamy, expressive yet not declarative, and snakes in and out of a song’s melody, unexpectedly dropping off an occasional syllable. All in all, it’s a pretty good vocal approximation – soothing, reassuring but with an edge of anxiety and doubt – of what it’s like to slowly emerge back into consciousness after being “away” for awhile.