Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tales of the unexpected - Gillian Welch, 'Time (The Revelator)'

When Jenny O’Keefe, PBS FM’s new (and, incidentally, fantastic) new Breakfast Spread co-host suggested yesterday morning that Gillian Welch’s album Time (The Revelator) was one of the best albums ever, and then played ‘My First Lover’, and I found myself bopping along to its bluesy country beat as I made my way to South Geelong station, I already decided that I would have to buy it. Then, at work, when Marty W told me what a fantastic album it was, I knew I had been steered in the right direction; but it was when the sales assistant at the CD shop, after I had paid for it, told me that she thought it was her favourite album of all time, that I really felt vindicated.

But none of that meant anything next to the authority of the music itself – music that is, by its simple reliance on its unadorned honesty, its own best advocate. These are songs that sit down beside you, guitar or banjo in hand, and tell you how they feel – intimate stories, sometimes sad, sometimes wistful, sometimes heartbroken – but always leaving you feeling that you have been there, too, even if you haven’t.

It’s the way this music creates such an instant and intimate connection with you that makes it so easy to fall in love with it, and to let it take you wherever it wants to go.

Gillian Welch makes a lot of a little in achieving all this. There is just a guitar, or a banjo, and her bare, unembellished vocals and, of course, the music that she creates with them – music that has the closeness of country, the distinctive twang of bluegrass, and then little unexpected and quirky twists here and there, like the odd but strangely appropriate discords in the album’s opener ‘Revelator’, where the guitar feels like it’s going out of tune, but only because Gillian is twisting the pegs.

But maybe nowhere is the spell more bewitching than in the closing track, ‘I Dream a Highway’, almost fifteen minutes of gently rocking sadness, lazy and forlorn, where there’s only the bare bones of a tune to hang onto, but it’s enough, and the music holds you in its arms, hanging onto you for its sake as much as for yours.

There are some people who can do anything with the most meagre handful of ingredients – people who can go to the fridge, find a bit of mouldy cheese and a lump of broccoli, think of ways of making them special, and turn it all into a gourmet meal that you savour forever.

That’s what Gillian Welch does here – she takes a couple of ingredients, blends them, wields her magic on them and transforms them into something that is hers (and ultimately yours) alone.

Listen, for example, to the slow and pensive flow of ‘Dear Someone’ – where there’s not one bit of it, neither its gentle, meandering pulse, nor its wandering, melancholy melody line, that sounds really unfamiliar, but where they come together in a way that has a sad beauty that, even to your own astonishment, you feel you’ve never come across before, like a flower in a garden that you unexpectedly notice when it unexpectedly blooms from a branch that has always been there.

Music’s endless capacity to create the extraordinary out of the ordinary, to tell tales of the unexpected in ways that make you feel like you belong to them, is part of what makes it so everlastingly fascinating, and Time (The Revelator) is surely the lay-down misere evidence of how it can be done.

It makes me feel kind of good about the world when radio announcers, work colleagues, and CD salespeople, can all be so attuned, and so right, as this.


  1. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for your kind words, I'm so glad you're on the Gillian Welch bandwagon, it's a mighty fine place to be. Incidentally, if you ever play the banjo, this is a great song to start with.

    Catch you on the Breakfast Spread!

    Cheerio from Jenny O

  2. Thanks for the post, Jenny and, of course, thanks, too, for the fantastic programme that you and Matt present on PBS - it makes work days just that little bit easier to face!

    As for the banjo - well, there's an idea! I hate to think what it would sound like in my hands but sometimes, some things just have to be given a go.