Gillian Welch’s third album, Time (The Revelator), was released 20 years ago this week. That’s jarring on a number of levels.
First of all, it never really left my rotation. I still think of it as new music. There’s this weird compression of time in the internet era. In 2001, music from 1981 sounded a lot older, right? Now it’s as though time is curved instead of linear, we can access new or old music as we wish with the press of a button, it’s all the same, and anything released after this curvature started taking place — the White Stripes, OutKast, Animal Collective — is still contemporary (and always will be).
So Time (speaking of time) doesn’t sound even slightly dated — except in the ways that it wants to sound dated, of course. There’s the weird displacement of its neotraditional country, folk, blues and gospel. It still sounds new and fresh but it also sounds a hundred years old.
Then there’s the haunted quality of its sound, the perfect match for its dark, visionary themes. This droning, minimalist, even dubby feel that makes it sound almost futurist, in the way dub reggae does (also despite its own traditionalism), like country music echoing in the corridors of an abandoned space station. I often follow up Time with ambient electronic music by Boards of Canada or Autechre or the like. That’s the kind of atmosphere it creates for me. “Timeless” is a cliche, but I use it somewhat more deliberately here.
Quick note for readers who may not be familiar with Gillian Welch: though she records under her given name, “she” is in fact a duo: her musical and life partner David Rawlings being the other half. They share songwriting duties, though Welch wrote most of the songs here; and their gorgeous harmonies and twin acoustic guitar game are integral to everything they do. On the albums credited to “Gillian Welch,” she sings lead; when it’s the reverse they are the Dave Rawlings Machine. Sometimes they play with backing musicians; sometimes, as on Time, it’s just them. This is all a bit confusing, and occasionally I may slip up and get the pronouns wrong or credit the wrong half of the duo for a particular thing, but it’s also lovely and part of their mystique.
Welch and Rawlings are absolute geniuses, and all of their albums are great. I particularly love Soul Journey, the lectrified 2003 follow-up to this one. But nothing else in their discography, or anyone’s, really, can surpass the apocalyptic feel of Time — somehow both brooding and majestic — and the audacious storytelling that makes it feel like reading the Great American Novel. Its dreamlike mashup of American history, tall tales, the spookier parts of the Bible, the myth of Elvis Presley, and episodes from Welch’s own life, with the many recurring themes and motifs tying them all together. Its images so indelible it’s like you experienced them yourself: “The girl passed out in the backseat trash,” “I watch the waitress for a thousand years.” I think of it as the country version of a David Lynch film.
If none of these lyrical wonders had happened, and Time (The Revelator) consisted of 10 country songs about heartache, it would still be a stone classic, thanks to the duo’s hall-of-fame-level songwriting, Welch’s unearthly, penetrating vocals and Rawlings’s quietly stunning guitar work.
Rawlings is like a country version of Johnny Marr: though his task is primarily to provide a melodic backdrop for Welch’s vocals, and he seldom shows off with a solo, his guitar work is indispensable to the whole package: ringing, chiming, soulful, unforgettable. It’s amazing how much atmosphere he creates with those six strings (on a salvaged guitar from 1935 he found in a friend’s garage). His guitar has the quality of another voice on the recording, providing ethereal commentary on the tales Welch is telling. And when he does rip into a solo, forget about it. I know this album backwards and forwards and the fluidity and clarity of his solos still makes my hair stand up.
I love the languid, stoned quality of the recordings: the slow pace, the skeletal minimalism, the wonderful reverb. There are no fiddles and no steel guitars, no drums; no other instruments at all besides the duo’s guitars and, occasionally Welch’s banjo, reverberating into the ether around her vocals. The duo’s psychedelic influence is a subtle but definite factor, both in the frequently trippy lyrics and in the droning, repetitive song structures. I hear them not so much as songs, but as soundscapes — especially the epic closer, “I Dream a Highway” which wheels and circles around a simple refrain for fourteen minutes without getting even slightly boring, like a melody looping in your mind when you’re high or feverish, as Welch spins a vision of a neverending road and debauchery and death and Biblical apocalypse.
Welch comes across like the risen ghost of an Appalachian troubadour from some deep, forgotten holler, come back to haunt the 21st century with a lost songbook filled with tragic tales of John Henry and the Great Emancipator. She even looks like that in photos. It was many months of listening to Time (The Revelator) before I realized that none of the songs are traditional standards — Welch and Rawlings wrote every one. On a surface level, it’s nuts how good they are at capturing the feel of classics by the likes of the Carter Family, from Welch’s high lonesome vocals to the reverb in the Nashville studio where Time was recorded. This is, of course, a big reason why Welch was roped into working on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ wonderful O Brother, Where Art Thou? (released the year before Time), which played a huge part in reviving the popularity of those classics, and in cementing her own fame.
So at first it doesn’t seem possible that Welch was raised in Los Angeles, and was influenced by Neil Young and the Grateful Dead as much as she was by Hank Williams. A Gen-Xer, who played bass in a goth band in college at UC Santa Cruz and namechecks Throwing Muses and the Pixies as influences. She and Rawlings attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. You have to keep reminding yourself the traditionalism is a pastiche.
But a pastiche it is, and that’s an important thing to remember when listening to it.
Authenticity is a falsehood anyway, in any genre. Bluegrass, to name but one of the strands Welch and Rawlings weave into their repertoire, is not strictly traditional music, whatever it may seem. It’s very much a 20th century form that was heavily influenced by blues and jazz. It may sound like music that’s been transported to us intact from a distant preindustrial past, but it’s just as much an amalgamation of styles and influences and technology and pop culture as R&B or metal. Its traditionalism is not an unchanging, intrinsic quality, but a stance: a rejection of the modern.
By the time you get to the turn of the millennium, when young artists like Welch began forging the style variously called neotraditional or alt-country, with its influences in indie and punk, this stance becomes more and more meta.
Culturally speaking, from the mid-20th century on, traditionalist music has been a way of reacting to the rapid change and upheaval under late capitalism. It both comments on this upheaval, and especially its impact on rural and migrant workers (reflected in Welch’s repurposing of the John Henry myth and her references to the Dust Bowl on Time), and romantically calls back to simpler agrarian times (as in “Red Clay Halo”).
It can be fraught for a genre of music to invite listeners to imagine a more pristine, less complicated world that never existed, given the violence and oppression inherent in American history. At its best, traditionalist music reminds listeners of the music’s radical roots, from Joe Hill and Harry McClintock to Woody Guthrie, and passes down stories of the worker resistance and solidarity that shaped the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Mind you, Welch and Rawlings are perfectly aware of all these clashing impulses of the traditional and the modern, and it shows on this album. Time (The Revelator) isn’t merely a slavish imitation of old-time country and blues; that would be boring. Welch quotes Gram Parsons and L.L. Cool J and interpolates Steve Miller; she sings about surfers and punk rock and plastic drink cups and watching TV; the album’s most beloved song, “Everything Is Free,” is about the internet; “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll” is an acoustic country number about the narrator’s desire to give up playing acoustic country and go electric and rock out.
In this interview in Rolling Stone, Rawlings says the demos of Welch working on the songs on Time with an electric band make them sound like Depeche Mode or Bauhaus. These are some of the phrases Welch has used to describe their time working on the album: “threatened,” “raw and alone,” “impossibly alienated and disconnected,” “pre-apocalyptic.” When asked about writing “Everything Is Free” she speaks repeatedly of anger. They say the album’s themes of doom and destruction (“And the great boat sank, and the Okies fled / And the Great Emancipator took a bullet in the head“) are really all about the crumbling state of Nashville (both musical and literal), and about their anxiety over quitting their label, which had just been bought by Interscope, to start their own.
On “My First Lover,” Welch plays her banjo in a jagged, almost savage way, underscoring her bitter, sardonic lyrical memories of a shallow jerk. There’s something almost postpunk or goth about the sound; it completely strips away the charm and quaintness the listener may associate with the banjo. Perhaps that rawness is what someone might have heard in a banjo at a moonlit late-night backyard jam in the mountains of Kentucky a century ago, before those quaint associations were entrenched by the media. Maybe that was their goth.
This is the level Welch is operating on: playing traditional sounds, not as if they were golden-filtered museum pieces, but making them sound as shattering and scary and deep as they must have back in the day.
When Welch sings about hard times, she’s echoing traditional folk narratives of struggle, but she’s also addressing the hard times we have now under neoliberal capitalism in the 21st century. “Everything Is Free” is a bitter lament for what the internet has done to musicians and the music industry, but it could also be read metaphorically to refer to the gig economy and the casualization and precarity of the workforce everywhere. “We’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.” That’s probably why the song resonates even more today — it’s by far the most-listened-to track on the album on Spotify (which is insane if you think about it, given that Spotify is, essentially, exactly what the song is decrying). It’s also an incredibly popular song to cover. If you haven’t heard Phoebe Bridgers and Courtney Barnett’s devastating cover of it, recorded live for the virtual Newport Folk Festival while in COVID isolation last year, please do yourself a favor. Welch’s apocalyptic updates on the sorrowful sounds of the Great Depression were practically made for this generation and this pandemic.
Time (The Revelator) is a concept album of sorts, made up of a series of intertwining narratives that seem to be taking place all at once across multiple timelines. In a weird way it reminds me of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain and the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, two movies that feature multiple, complex, layered, time-travelling narratives.
These are some of the things that are happening across the album’s timelines: the Titanic is sinking. Abraham Lincoln is being assassinated. Oklahomans are fleeing the Dust Bowl. A young Elvis Presley waggles his hips on television, unaware of the forces he is unleashing. An old Elvis is all alone, dying. John Henry is falling down dying too, with a hammer in his hand. A young woman in California goes to see a punk band at a seedy bar and her life is changed. The cooks clean the kitchen of the bar, drunk. A highway unwinds forever into a dark, unknown future. Johnny Cash kicks out the footlights onstage at the Grand Ole Opry. Lazarus rises from the dead. A waitress pours coffee. An angel appears, looking like a wheel within a wheel and signalling the end of days.
Anyway, that’s how I’d approach the screenplay if I were adapting Time into a movie; but the thing is, there’s no need for that because the experience of listening to it is so cinematic in the first place. A film adaptation would be superfluous.
An underrated factor in folk and folk-rock is the way it might incorporate themes and imagery from science fiction. For example, on “After the Gold Rush,” Neil Young sings about “silver spaceships flying” and bringing on some sort of apocalypse; the lyrics on the page are like an Alan Moore comic compared to the gentle pastoralism of the music. On Bruce Springsteen’s “Open All Night,” from Nebraska, his most stripped-down and folksy album, the Boss sings about the “North Jersey industrial skyline”: “This turnpike sure is spooky at night when you’re all alone… This New Jersey in the mornin’ like a lunar landscape.” As if he’s channeling Robert Smith.
Welch takes similar lyrical leaps on Time (The Revelator). The push-pull between the rootsiness of the music and the futurist or fantastic elements in the lyrics is marvellous. Some of the lyrics on “I Dream a Highway” almost resemble cyberpunk: “Any second now I’m gonna turn myself on / In the blue display of a cool cathode ray” and “Radiation from the porcelain light / Blind and blistered by the morning white.”
Welch’s mythmaking (or remaking) is not without its problematic elements. I highly recommend this Current Affairs article about the politics of the legend of John Henry, and how various interpretations of it over the decades have differed as to whether Henry was a noble hero who saw work as its own reward, or an exploited victim. These interpretations roughly break down into white vs. Black takes on the myth.
Welch’s vision of John Henry seems to stalk the borderlands between these two views. On the one hand she sings “Thinking how happy John Henry was that he fell down dying” and “Lord let me die with a hammer in my hand.” But then the whole vibe of the album is so doom and gloom, it’s hard to come to the conclusion there’s any glory in this. I hear grim irony in those lines. It’s like a quiet indictment of hustle culture.
And then there’s “Elvis Presley Blues” — another one of the most beloved songs on this album. Welch has probably done more than anyone else in this millennium to rehabilitate the myth of Elvis as the tragic king of rock and roll for people who should know better. I have mixed feelings about this. I love this song so much but it’s not easy to reconcile the tension between it and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (“Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me”), a track that changed my life when I was a kid.
I don’t have a strong opinion about Elvis. I was never much of a fan, and as far as I’m concerned Bo Diddley is the King, but I don’t find it important to knock Elvis down either. I love this song, not because I love Elvis but just because of its unforgettable imagery and its piercing melancholy and because it’s one of the most gorgeous tunes you’ll ever hear. The way Welch sings “Well bless my soul, what’s wrong with me?” on the bridge always kills me. I didn’t even realize until recently that it’s a quote of the opening line of “All Shook Up” (that’s how little I know Elvis). I always heard it as her questioning her own obsessive thoughts (something I can relate to deeply). Now it’s clear that both meanings are intended. It’s breathtaking how much there is to unpack on this album, how much each line communicates.
There’s a whole, long conversation to be had about cultural appropriation, whether it’s always a bad thing, and how the tendency for liberals to focus on it in a moralistic way distracts us from a multicultural workers’ movement. This recent article at Dissent Magazine is a good place to start if you’re interested — and for the life of me, I didn’t remember until I just found the link that it’s called “All Shook Up”! It includes a relevant quote from Black Marxist historian Barbara J. Fields:
Everybody inhabits many [cultures], all simultaneous, all overlapping. It was true for Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, and it is true for us today, sharing a history beyond our individual experience and therefore sharing the culture that history has produced.
Differences of political standing and economic power ensure that some people can monetize a shared cultural inheritance more than others, just as some enjoy greater wealth and higher incomes, live in better housing, receive better educations, and live longer and healthier lives. But that is because of political and economic exploitation, not cultural appropriation.
If you asked me point blank I’d say Elvis was a naive kid from Mississippi who was ferociously talented and deserved his accolades, even if his Black peers and influences deserved more. It wasn’t his fault personally that the mass marketing of his talent became a symbol of a racist media apparatus and a racist society. As the Dissent article points out, we tend to blame individual artists and musicians for appropriation, and not the powers that be who benefit from upholding a system of racial oppression.
What I appreciate about Welch’s narrative is that she, again, seems aware of all this, and she complicates things. About the moment Elvis appeared on TV and changed the world, she sings “And he shook it like a chorus girl / And he shook it like a Harlem queen.” She gives us two images of the gender disruption latent in rock and roll — and the shock and fear and panic that must have divided homes across America as this cultural hydrogen explosion was unleashed — and she makes sure we don’t forget about Elvis’s Black influences either. “He took it all out of Black and white / Grabbed his wand in the other hand and he held on tight.”
At the end of the day, the song is as mournful as it is celebratory. The mythical, more or less fictional Elvis here is a hopeless figure, caught up in forces larger than himself, declining and unhappy. A John Henry who never got to die resisting the machine.
Given the angst about the state of the music industry (and of the world) that was the basis for this incredible album, it’s clear these feelings are at least in part autobiographical too on Welch’s part.
Well bless my soul, what’s wrong with me?