by Alec Lane Featured Kicking the Canon Music

Emmylou Harris | Wrecking Ball

May 4, 2020

Widely hailed as a major turn in Emmylou Harris’s already illustrious career, the 1995 album Wrecking Ball found the beloved country artist exploring new avenues in production while reinforcing her ability to command the intricate arrangements — ultimately deepening her power to bring an specific emotional resonance to her songs. The influence of new producer Daniel Lanois absolutely drenches the album, featuring instruments that are always sustained and echoed, developing the album’s oft-mentioned atmosphere. His languid, dreamy sound finds a magnificent pairing with Harris’s talents and sensibilities; her song choices are revealing and enrich each other thematically while their performance gives an order to the softened textures, evoking both the emotional potency and incompletion of faded memory.

The album sparks memories of her decades-spanning country career by retaining traditional sonic elements and arrangements which, under Lanois’s treatment, sound as though they are about to disintegrate.

Opening the record with “Where Will I Be,” a melancholy reflection on impending death written by Lanois, the vocal delivery immediately alters between rhythmic, nearly inscrutable tone and a sharp lyrical clarity, marking this new stylistic avenue with a conscious state of weariness as the lyrics offer personal reflection. Such poignant and unsparing reminiscence expands to many of the other tracks as well, especially the unsentimental cover of Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” in which Harris draws out the familiar hubris in that’s song’s expression of repentance formed in great desperation. In what becomes one of the album’s most thoughtful thematic threads, the transcendent release of death exuded on “All My Tears” gets a response with “Same Old World,” a Lucinda Williams cover about mourning. For Harris, the reckoning undertaken on Wrecking Ball attempts is one of finding sense in fundamental contradictions — like her yearning for both attachment to and release from worldly burdens, or the fallibility of addressing the past — on just about every level. The album sparks memories of her decades-spanning country career by retaining traditional sonic elements and arrangements which, under Lanois’s treatment, sound as though they are about to disintegrate. The thrill and beauty of such an aesthetic is the listener’s awareness of Harris’s continual striving, not as martyrdom but rather as a commitment to her musical expression which is here felt quite possibly more keenly than ever. Her voice certainly shows signs of aging as well, an evolution made a part of the album’s meaning not only in the focus given to it in the production but also as a way to ground its themes, of death but also honest introspection.

In addition to the sound and lyrics, Wrecking Ball also employs a careful pacing in the way certain familiar elements are incorporated into the songs’ structures, gives the record a reflective quality. We get the sense that Harris and her collaborators are experimenting with these components not just by manipulating their sound, but also in attempting to generate a unique emotive effect. Example: the percussion on the album’s first half manifests within its signature broad sound without sacrificing the propulsive foundation of the songs, the precision of its performance combined with the production’s intelligibility allowing the beats to bleed over one another and generate a template that is at once deliberately mapped yet still murky and abstracted. The first five songs on the album — arguably the most memorable, if only for their cumulative perfection as an encapsulation of the album’s concerns — layer lyrical ruminations on death, love, and memory over the unique sonic and melodic structures, and the arrangements drive each song in measured steps to overwhelming heights. The end of this suite and the album’s turning point, Anna McGarrigle’s “Goin’ Back to Harlan,” is a bittersweet recollection of personal origin injected with a painful sense of finality thanks to the album’s established aesthetic calibration. As Harris sings the chorus on this song, one of the best in her career, the unique interplay of ethereality and emotional clarity almost convinces one that they are listing to something genuinely divine. Later on, when the record turns to its boldest experimentation in the Hendrix cover, or when the ghostly background vocals appear on “Waltz Across Texas Tonight,” there’s no denying the deliberate implementation of co-mingled individual talents in crafting a singular melancholy effect. Wrecking Ball proved a departure for Harris, but just as remarkable is how she manages to retain a connection to her roots throughout — an assured record as much as it is a left-field one.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.