Wrecking Ball

Emmylou Harris

Elektra Records, 1995


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Biographers of James Taylor, not to mention the man himself, have taken lately to characterizing key songs in his catalog as "secular hymns." In other words, songs that have both a meditative, self-cleansing quality and, at times, a unique, ethereal beauty.

This description comes immediately to mind when listening to Wrecking Ball, Emmylou Harris' milestone 1995 album. In the first place, "ethereal" pretty well defines Harris' delicate, immensely expressive voice. Count me among those who've always felt comfortable assuming her one-time mentor Gram Parsons must have been thinking of her when he sang of his "angel."

Secondly, Harris' beautiful instrument and remarkable phrasing have never sounded better than here, set amongst the roomy, atmospheric backdrop of Daniel Lanois' production and guitar work. The producer (with Brian Eno) of most of U2's best studio work of the past 15 years may seem like an odd choice for a female country-rock singer, but this album makes it sound like a match made in heaven.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There is a hypnotic deliberateness to the tempos of many of these tracks, a certain seriousness of purpose that only serves to underscore the quality of the songs and Harris' performance of them. And what a roster of songwriters: Steve Earle, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Julie Miller, Anna McGarrigle, Jimi Hendrix (!), Rodney Crowell, Lanois, and Harris herself.

Standouts include the elegiac ode to seduction, "Where Will I Be"; the mesmerizing dirge "Deeper Well," featuring especially ominous guitar tones from Lanois; and the exquisite laments "Goodbye" and "Sweet Old World." In several cases the songwriters accompany Harris, with Neil Young offering especially affecting harmony vocals on the title track, a 1989 composition of his that Harris and Lanois render in dreamy, achingly pretty tones.

Lanois' contribution is hard to underestimate when you see how he manages to tame Hendrix's "May This Be Love" into a gentle duet with Harris on which he plays the mellowest psychedelic lead guitar you'll ever hear. Here and on several other tracks, U2's Larry Mullen Jr. provides outstanding support with his sensitive, intricate drumming.

If there's a flaw to this album, it's my own, and amounts to a matter of personal taste. Many country-rock fans swear by Harris's voice, and it's remarkable in its ability to convey a sense of both vulnerability and passion. It's just that my rock and roll heart can only take so much of her fragile vibrato before I long for someone who can set a deep-throated wail to a 4/4 backbeat. As a result, I've come to the conclusion that I don't need more than a couple of Harris albums in my collection. Having said that, however, Wrecking Ball is number one on my list, a starkly beautiful set of secular hymns that feature Harris at the top of her game, supported by an all-star cast of writers and players and the subtle genius of Daniel Lanois.

Rating: A-

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© 2002 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Elektra Records, and is used for informational purposes only.