The Harrow and the Harvest, Gillian Welch's first album in eight years, is 10 folk songs in the classic sense: tales of travelers, of everyday comforts and concerns—songs that work as still-life portraits of quiet, thoughtful moments.
The album is Welch's true successor to Time (The Revelator), and though it has nothing as epic as "I Dream a Highway" or the two-part tale of "April the 14th" and "Ruination Day," nor as perfect as "Revelator," it's just as strong, and just as likely to lift a listener out of his own time.
Welch and co-writer/producer David Rawlings are back to more traditional, spare arrangements. Absent are the light drums, organ, bass, fiddle and electric guitar of 2003's Soul Journey, a fresh-sounding album that made an unnecessary turn away from Welch's greatest strengths.
There are flourishes of harmonica and banjo, but Harrow is most often just the two guitars endlessly dancing around each other, and the two voices, rising and falling until they're welded into a delicate harmony.
A theme runs through the album about life's long march and circumstances that pop up along the way, be they impediments, detours or strokes of fortune. A trio of songs—"The Way It Will Be," "The Way It Goes" and "The Way the Whole Thing Ends"—especially explore what in life can be controlled, and what hits like a storm.
The Harrow and the Harvest shows that Gillian Welch is among those rare artists for whom masterpiece isn't a singular term.