It’s hard to believe that eight years have passed since Gillian Welch put out an album, though, as an alt-country icon, she’s always been around, even hooking up with The Decemberists earlier on 2011’s The King Is Dead. More surprising is that she waited that long to follow up Soul Journey, a jammy record that showcased an expanding musical palette and left purists in a fuss. Artists who have nothing left to prove have the luxury of recording what they feel like when they feel like it, which may explain why The Harrow & The Harvest is easily her most relaxed, laid-back album yet.
In the spirit of 2001’s Time (The Relevator)—which was swept up in the post-O Brother, Where Art Thou? clamor for neo-traditional Americana music—The Harrow & The Harvest is a voice-and-guitar record. (The harmonica and handclaps on the peppy “Six White Horses” are the exception.) For Welch, it’s a return to devoutly traditional folk music, performed with a loose, natural confidence throughout. Steady in purpose and sure-handed in execution, Welch and long-time partner David Rawlings are flawless complements in guitar work and harmony, treating each track with the utmost subtlety. And yet The Harrow & The Harvest doesn’t seem all that substantial. It’s the perfect record for front-porch reading on a warm summer afternoon, in large part because it doesn’t command attention. At her best, Welch is never mere background music.