mon 08/08/2022

CD: Emmylou Harris - Hard Bargain | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Emmylou Harris - Hard Bargain

CD: Emmylou Harris - Hard Bargain

Country veteran shows the young'uns a clean pair of heels

Always renowned as an interpreter of other artists' material, Emmylou Harris has been a late developer as a songwriter. On 2008's All I Intended to Be, she successfully balanced cover versions with her own songs, but this time she has written eight songs single-handed, and three more in collaboration with Will Jennings. It's a sign of her writerly progress that her own work comfortably holds its own against the non-originals "Cross Yourself", composed by producer and multi-instrumentalist Jay Joyce, and Ron Sexsmith's slightly turgid title track.

Hard Bargain was cut in a brisk four weeks in Nashville last summer, with Harris tackling all the voices and acoustic guitars while Joyce and Giles Reaves played everything else, from the ganjo and the omnichord to pump organ and marimbula. Joyce's production has managed to encompass both earthy bottom-end thump and jet streams of hazy atmospherics which often lend the music a suspended, reverie-like quality.

You suspect that, left to her own devices, Harris might find herself stuck in pious-and-introspective mode, a zone she visits here in the likes of "Lonely Girl" (gentle, reflective, wistful) or "The Ship on His Arm", which is a lapping modal lilt over ringing open chords. But happily, changes of mood and pace arrive right on time. Perhaps as a sign of cobweb-clearing intent, the album opens with the burly thwack of "The Road", where Emmylou is unusually explicit about the time she spent working with Gram Parsons and the impact he had on her life.

Even more rumbustious is "New Orleans", a blast of raw electric guitars and lashing percussion over which Harris delivers a "hurricanes can't drown our spirit" message on behalf of the Crescent City. In "Big Black Dog", a song about a stray black labrador rescued by the dog-loving Emmylou, the mood grows positively exuberant thanks to its clip-clopping beat and singalong chorus.

But the inner Emmy is given full rein on the simple and sorrowful "Darlin' Kate", a valediction to her close friend and collaborator Kate McGarrigle, while "Home Sweet Home" is an object lesson in how to treat traditional country music forms to a 21st-century overhaul. At 64, Harris is still trampling boundaries and pushing forwards.


Another startlingly beautiful album from one of the great singers and latterly, songwriters of her time. Thanks.

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