Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Emmylou Harris
Wrecking Ball

Released 1995 on Elecktra
Reviewed by Michael-Kim, 02/07/2002ce

Have you ever wanted to hear a near perfectly realized album, where each recorded song is compacted down to its diamond essence, & where any single subtraction/addition could destroy its fragile genius?

Then reach straight for Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris & instrumentalist/jedi producer Daniel Lanois.

I don't think that Harris/Lanois had any idea that their efforts on this album would be so highly original that a new genre would suddenly appear in the music world - a lushly ambient, experimental, American country music.

When it came out, many critics immediately threw it into the "Americana" category. & though I can understand that, I just can't sit comfortable with it. Harris/Lanois created something totally uncategorizable with their album - equally reminiscent of Eno's ambient stylings & equally country in spirit.

The only previous work I can discover similar is the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Session, a footnoted masterpiece of hushed alt-country music. But even Trinity Session, recorded in a reverbed church, sounds thin compared to the thickly atmospheric & infinitely resonating Wrecking Ball.

Yet, like Trinity Session, Wrecking Ball contains many imaginative & original versions of previous classic songs. Cover versions are not new to Emmylou's oervre nor utilizing other contemporary songwriters' tunes to make up her albums; she's always had a good ear for selecting worthy material, reinterpreting them gracefully & with individuality. What sets Wrecking Ball apart, though, is that many of the original songwriters of the material she selected collaborate on her versions, inherently authorizing her takes: Steve Earl - "Goodbye," Neil Young - "Wrecking Ball," & Lucinda Williams - "Sweet Old World."

If only Dylan could've sung background on "Every Grain Of Sand" or Hendrix's ghost on "May This Be Love," now that would be something! - the only possible flaws on the album. But like Dylan once said of Hendrix's take of "All Along The Watchtower," "Hendrix owns that song," one would have to argue with each of them if they couldn't similarly say the same about Harris' renditions. She not only totally owns both of those two tracks (the Dylan cover glides/swoons a bit more than the original; but, the Hendrix cover is possibly one of the most transcendent pieces of music ever recorded by mortals, to my ears -- surpassing the original utopian fury of Lord Jimi), but she also adds many new acres to each song's original plot, taking them just north of heaven.

Wrecking Ball can't help but offer another argument for questioning who owns the original song, as it unconsciously throws off copyright laws like sparks, like so much refuse.

When I was first overpowered by Wrecking Ball, I tried in vain to find out the influences Harris/Lanois were drawing from .... I immediately found Gram Parsons at the center of Harris' primary influences: GP/Grievous Angel (Reprise,1973; 1974) which feature a young Emmylou on one of her premier backing vocal gigs.

What Parsons claimed he was trying to do, that held the key for me, was to birth a "Cosmic American music." & though I now love Parsons for his genius, I never think he sonically attained that expansiveness. & now that I really love a lot of the older country stuff as well, I still have no idea where Wrecking Ball came from ... other than in taking up the promise of Parson's "Cosmic American music" & delivering a fully conceived/actualized take of it.

& don't let me hear a whisper about Wrecking Ball being Emmylou's "crossover" album to the rock/pop mainstream -- I might draw blood. With this album, there is no trace of her leaving her country roots behind (or her country audience, for that matter), descending into some kind of VH1 "contemporary pop" category to expand her vampirous market reach, like, say, Shania Twain or Faith Hill (two goddesses that should be seen but not heard). Rather, Harris, should be seen & heard for who she is, a beautiful artist who's depth & appreciation for the heart of soulful music places her outside of any territorialized marketing scheme, particularly one as creatively shackled as the "new country." Some of her head-scratchin' country audience should realize that she comes to fufill her old country roots not destroy them -- despite what the title Wrecking Ball seems to imply. Her explorations beyond present country standards descend to the bottomless -- not to the top of the haughty pop charts -- that is, the bottomless depths of the human heart. Investigate some lyrics to the track "Deeper Well" to get my meaning:

I was ready for love I was ready for the money
Ready for the blood & ready for the honey
Ready for the winnin', ready for the bell
Lookin' for the water from a deeper well
I found some love and I found some money
Found that blood would drip from the honey
Found I had a thirst that I could not quell
Lookin' for the water from a deeper well

Well...lookin for the water from a deeper well
Well...lookin for the water from a deeper well

Well I did it for kicks & I did it for faith
I did it for lust & I did it for hate
I did it for need & I did it for love
Addiction stayed on tight like a glove
So I ran with the moon & I ran with the night
& the three of us were a terrible sight
Nipple to the bottle to the gun to the cell
To the bottom of a hole of a deeper well

Well...lookin for the water from a deeper well
Well...lookin for the water from a deeper well

So, please don't question the integrity of her judgement again, especially about any "crossover." If anything, Emmylou has crossed over the "new country" abyss to that lost American music & tapped its well, tuning into its watery chaos, & sweetly offering you a sip of the future as well. But the flavor wouldn't be so rich without Lanois' contribution -- her choice to choose him for this album proves Harris'drunken genius.

Daniel Lanois, & his ensemble here, has created an invaluable sonic environment & beautiful springboard for Emmylou's visionary stirrings to swirl wherever they lead. The result is downright magical. Lanois' production of using state of the art technology recording with an organic feel to it is a hallmark of his atmospheric mixing skills. This approach is never more apparent than on Wrecking Ball, where the traditional meets the experimental in a head-on collision with Harris' sweet voice hovering just above the wreckage. The sonic expansiveness of this album should be largely credited to Lanois' adept emotional sensitivity/musical capacity to realize the "cosmic" aspect in "Cosmic American music." But Lanois also realizes the "American" in it as well, no matter that he hails from Canada. From The Band to early Cowboy Junkies to godspeed you black emperor!, Canadians have been revealing the heart of the North American landscape better than most Americans have for years and years. North America, as a whole, shares the same destiny, whether you're on the American or Canandian side of the continental divide. Wrecking Ball provides both perspectives together.

Speaking of destiny, if much modern American country music could let go of its hokey wordiness & hyper-commerciality and plunge back into the mystery of the American countryside, instead of drawing inspiration from "big city" honky-tonks of the deep South, it could recapture its lost soul. I say let Wrecking Ball be the fountainhead, the blueprint for what comes next. . . .

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