How frustrating it is that reviews of new Emmylou Harris albums always seem to start with surprise that the album features self-penned songs. For sure, Harris has always been better known as a brilliant interpreter of the work of others, but there has been much more to her songwriting than the admittedly wonderful Boulder To Birmingham. In 1985, she co-wrote a concept album, The Ballad of Sally Rose, with her then husband Paul Kennerley. Whilst it suffered commercially at the time, it has gradually received the recognition it deserves as a great personal achievement. More recently, the Daniel Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball seemed to direct her toward exploring new sound worlds and her own words and music. The subsequent Red Dirt Girl (2000) and Stumble Into Grace (2003) are highlights of her catalogue, showcasing her honest, powerful songwriting.
Her last album, All I Intended To Be (2008), seemed like something of a retrenchment, retreating back into interpretation and more traditional acoustic balladry. It did feature a small handful of original songs though, emphasising that Harris had at last become an all-rounder. Hard Bargain once again focuses on her own writing, albeit with mixed results.
Both musically and lyrically, Hard Bargain often seems to be straining to recapture what Harris realised so superbly on Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace. Daniel Lanois’ protege Malcolm Burn has been replaced by Jay Joyce, but the sound is similarly echo-laden and cinematic. Harris once again seems preoccupied by mystery and tragedy, and many will no doubt speculate that many of these songs continue to address her memories of Gram Parsons. The Road finds her referencing Harlan Howard’s famous definition of country music, ‘looking for the answers with these three chords and the truth’. Her spectral, ghostly presence in the cover image seems appropriately rendered.
The songs here are mostly personal and mournful. Some are strong, but there is without doubt a sense of diminishing returns creeping in. Songs like The Road and Lonely Girl find Harris expressing her familiar sentiments a little more clunkily than in the past. She can surely do much better than ‘I’m a lonely girl in a lonely world’. Even Darlin’ Kate, a tribute to the greatly missed Kate McGarrigle, whilst undoubtedly heartfelt, does not quite achieve the resonance and beauty of Strong Hand (For June Carter Cash) from Stumble Into Grace.
That being said, there are some notable attempts to move beyond the realms of the personal. Some seem like attempts to find comparable broader canvases for her themes. In The Ballad of Emmett Till, one of the best songs here, Harris revisits the story of the 14 year old black boy murdered in Chicago in 1955 after allegedly flirting with a white woman. The influence of Bob Dylan, who also wrote about the event, is palpable, but Harris’ individual voice shines through. New Orleans, far from being a lament for the stricken city, is a jubilant celebration of triumph in the face of adversity. It has the brazen, straight ahead rocking directness more often associated with Harris’ peer Lucinda Williams. Much less successful is Big Black Dog, an unexpected detour into whimsy, in which a stray Labrador is rescued, complete with quirky clack-a-lack percussion. The song’s pretty dismal lyrics could also benefit from a rescue mission.
It’s perhaps no surprise to find that the title track is a cover of Ron Sexsmith‘s song. Sexsmith remains greatly admired by other songwriters, and Harris and Joyce imbue the song with a relaxed groove and gentle empathy. Joyce’s own contribution to the project, Cross Yourself, is sadly a little bland and a rather flat way in which to conclude the album.
Harris’ breathless, fragile, floaty voice remains a distinctive instrument with graceful hypnotic qualities. It always allows her to add depth to her material, however earnest or lightweight it may be. Hard Bargain isn’t bad – and there are some songs here that might suggest some different paths for Harris to follow. The lingering sense, though, is one of repetition. Now the novelty of her songwriting has worn off, she needs to find a whole new language again. That she may be willing to do this in her mid-60s is surely something to be celebrated.