All I Intended To Be

Emmylou Harris

Nonesuch, 2008

REVIEW BY: Mark Millan

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/12/2009

I immediately fell in love with Emmylou Harris after first hearing her acclaimed Wrecking Ball album as a teenager. Wrecking Ball was not a country album, but I knew of Emmylou as a country singer, so for a long time it was my only album of hers in my collection. This changed when Harris released her primarily self-penned masterpiece Red Dirt Girl in 2000, and after catching her show here in Melbourne that year, I went out and picked up every one of her albums I could get my hands on.

What made those releases so unique was Harris’s departure from recording country, and with the help of producer Daniel Lanois, she put out what is best described as rootsy alt-rock compositions that suited her angelic, often eerie tones perfectly. Not one to repeat herself too often, Harris released one more atmospheric alt-rock album in 2003, the sublime Stumble Into Grace, which completed a trilogy of sorts. So for her twenty-first original studio album released last year, Emmylou returned to her country roots and turned out the impressive All I Intended To Be, which recorded her best sales figures in almost thirty years.

A few influences from her previous releases are still heard throughout this album, but it is more country than anything else. This, however, is my kind of country because there’s no generic country rock (think Keith Urban) to spoil the pure tones of Harris’s voice, and producer Brian Ahern has built on her previous works with Lanois and Malcolm Burn to create wonderful soundscapes that Emmylou weaves around effortlessly. This is a mixture of original songs and covers, and although recording took place over a three year period, it sounds as if it were cut in a couple of days.

The album opens superbly with Emmylou’s ageless voice doing wonders for the disparity of “Shores Of White Sand.” Longtime collaborator and guitarist extraordinaire Buddy Miller offers some beautiful harmonies that make this one of their finest moments together. “Hold On” is a heartbreaking cut that Harris delivers with a sincerity and tenderness that only she can. Patty Griffin’s “Moon Song” is a throwback to Emmylou’s early days, featuring some beautiful harmonies by Mary Ann Kennedynbtc__dv_250

Emmylou’s interpretation of “Broken Man’s Lament” is pure genius, as is her ability to resonate with the male character from whose point of view the song is sung. Her self-penned “Gold” is a simple but moving country ballad that is greatly enhanced by Dolly Parton’s warm tones, and when the two are joined by Vince Gill, it comes as close to perfection as anything country that I have heard in some time. “How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower” was written by Harris with the McGarrigle sisters. Possibly left over from their sessions for Stumble Into Grace, this track adds some tradition to the album, which is a welcome treat.

A beautiful reading of Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have Is Your Soul” fits in well and is again testament to Harris’s interpretative skills. It seems that a common thread of great interpretive singers that I’m familiar with (Marianne Faithfull, Wendy Matthews, and Emmylou, to name a few) is great instincts about what will work for them and what won’t. They rarely make the wrong choice, and this enables Emmylou to make amazingly consistent albums of her own and others songs with a ridiculous ease. 

My favorite track on this album is her own “Take That Ride,” which finds Harris asking wearily “Don’t you believe it’s time to let me go? / The clock is winding down and I’m moving slow / I could keep on dancing but it’s just for show / Don’t you believe it’s time to let me go?” “Old Five And Dimers Like Me” is here as a duet with John Starling, and on the old Merle Haggard ditty “Kern River,” Starling again weaves his morbid tones around Harris’s equally somber reading for great effect. Another Harris original, “Not Enough,” deals with the death of a friend and quite movingly finds her voice close to breaking during the first verse.

Harris and the McGarrigle sisters wrote “Sailing ‘Round The Room” after viewing a documentary about the Terri Schiavo. Following “Not Enough,” it’s almost too morbid to listen to, but this one is at least delivered in a more hopeful manner, which was a good choice at this point. “Beyond The Great Divide” closes out the album with a typical country singalong ballad that lifts the mood greatly. Harris really excels when singing with and around others, and that is no more prevalent than on this closer.

All I Intended To Be is yet another feather in the hat of Emmylou Harris, who never ceases to amaze me with her effortless ability to sing just about anything as if it were her own. Despite enjoying her sixty-second year, Harris’s voice has barely aged throughout the last couple of decades and her creative juices are still flowing rapidly enough for her to keep producing work of this quality. A national treasure of her homeland, Harris continues to expand her reach throughout the world and its generations, which by now has earned her the respect and admiration she so richly deserves. 

Rating: A-

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