The Common Good
January 2004

Back-Porch Apocalypse

by Kate Bowman | January 2004

Soul Journey, by Gillian Welch.

In his book Everyday Apocalypse, writer David Dark contends that our notion of "apocalypse" is severely limited, if not altogether misguided. It’s not the hysterical plot-fodder of end-times novels—eerie prophecy and cosmic pyrotechnics signaling the end of the world as we know it. Genuine apocalyptic expression, Dark writes, "is a radical declaration concerning the meaning of human experience." It’s a startling epiphany about the nature of God’s kingdom here in our midst. It’s a Flannery O’Connor novel that scandalizes the reader into recognizing the first as last, and vice versa.

In this kind of artistic apocalypse, then, Gillian Welch—armed with an acoustic guitar, a banjo, and the occasional harmonica or fiddle—could be one of the four horsemen. The title of the folk musician’s latest album, Soul Journey, is apt: Her rambling, understated bluegrass sound, coupled with moody American-gothic storytelling, leads the listener through the uncomfortable territory of dreams deferred, disappointments realized, and hope in the midst of it all—the essence of what it means to be human.

Ten years into their professional career, Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings are known for intense musical and lyrical anthropology. Soul Journey preserves this reputation, but it also represents a departure from the formula that rocketed the unassuming duo into the spotlight.

After the unexpected success of 2000’s Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, to which Welch contributed two songs, some critics deemed her act a gimmick whose influence wouldn’t outlast the "old-timey" craze the film inspired. Indeed, in terms of both appearance and musical style, Welch and Rawlings give the impression of having come directly from a Dorothea Lange dustbowl photograph, so there have been ample opportunities for media pigeonholing. The fact that Welch grew up in Los Angeles rather than a backwoods mining town also seemed to undermine her legitimacy as anything more than an old-fashioned novelty act. The critically acclaimed Time (The Revelator), released in 2001, showcased Welch’s aptitude for capturing loneliness and longing in eccentric character sketches and Appalachian vignettes and established her as a leading purveyor of music that sounded simultaneously centuries old and brand new.

BUT, AS WELCH SAYS, it was time to move into different territory with the new album: "At the end of the last record we were a little tired of the sounds we were making, and felt like our musical palette had shrunk." Welch notes that Soul Journey is a "completely unfussy" collection that expands her boundaries in several ways. Recorded in just eight weeks in Nashville, the spirit of the sessions was spontaneous; many of the songs were captured in one take, with all the musicians performing together live. Stylistically, Soul Journey treads familiar ground with spare arrangements of traditional folk songs ("Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor," popularized by Doc Watson) and melancholy tales of yearning ("I Made a Lovers Prayer"). But it also takes on a previously unexplored roots-rock feel at times, adding drums and driving bass in numbers such as the nostalgic "Wrecking Ball."

Soul Journey also marks a lyrical departure for Welch. While always personal, in the past she’s distanced herself from the characters who inhabit her songs—whether Elvis or an orphan girl—by placing them in obscure, fictional settings. On Soul Journey, however, Welch has been up front about the fact that most numbers are nakedly self-referential. In "No One Knows My Name," for instance, Welch confesses the identity crisis inherent in being adopted (she is the biological daughter of an unknown girl who took up with a traveling musician): "Ain’t one soul in the whole world knows my name/ Just another baby born to a girl lost and lorn." Clearly Welch has experienced the loss and loneliness about which she writes.

Even in the midst of this melancholy, Welch insists that Soul Journey is her most upbeat project yet—which only contributes to its significance as an apocalyptic work of art. Soul Journey is indeed soul music: The simple sounds in which Welch and Rawlings wrap their words communicate such heartbreakingly familiar emotions that they are able to transform our human frailties—broken relationships, Christ-haunted longings, nostalgia for the past—into beautiful expressions of dignity and hope.

Kate Bowman helps students look for God in art and pop culture as student activities coordinator for Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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