Hard Bargain is the 22nd album by country-folk legend Emmylou Harris, and her 29th release, not counting compilations; her impressive catalogue showing very few, if any, missteps. Since 1969 she has progressed from being a bright eyed folk singer to touring as a part of Gram Parson’s band in the 70’s, receiving chart success in the 80’s and then being rediscovered by an alternative rock audience with 1995’s Daniel Lanois produced Wrecking Ball. This has helped lead her to her current standing as a revered matriarch of country-folk, and one who is seemingly constantly in demand to lend her distinctive vocals to albums by younger artists. Consequently, it seems natural that her new album holds little in the way of surprises and that, at the age of 64, her focus is now fixed on the past.
Throughout the 13 songs offered here, 11 of which are self-penned, Harris muses on the journey of life, accumulated regrets, and laments friends lost along the way; specifically Parsons, on album opener “The Road”, and Kate McGarrigal, who passed away last year, on “Darlin’ Kate”. However the album is not an overly sombre affair; it is a collection of autobiographical songs written with perspective and delivered with a dignity and poise that suits an artist of Harris’ years.
Musically the tracks are mostly mid-tempo pop numbers with country rock drum beats and layered reverb-heavy guitars, lending much of the material an atmospheric quality harking back to her work with Lanois. While on “The Road” this ethereal texture suits the subject matter, on the Ron Sexsmith written title track Harris seems out of place amongst slick radio-friendly production techniques, one of the few points where the album seems to stall.
The up-beat numbers here help to keep the listener on their toes, such as “New Orleans”, an examination of that still powerful city post-Katrina, with its loud incessant rock beat and crunchy guitars which are almost shocking following the preceding track, the slow-burning “Goodnight Old World”. Another such example is the single “Six White Cadillacs”. With its shuffle beat and antique guitar tone, it sounds as if it could have been lifted straight from Johnny Cash’s Sun recordings. The song is a welcome bit of fun, and interestingly is one of the few points where Harris’ voice sounds noticeably worn, although it suits her.
While it is more usual for Harris to invite an often star-studded list of guest musicians on her recent albums, which have included for instance Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton and Neil Young as mere backing vocalists, this time around the band consists of only three: producer/guitarist Jay Joyce, multi-instrumentalist Giles Reaves and Emmylou herself.
Perhaps the fact that there are less personnel accounts somewhat for the layered production sound, as at times Harris’ delicate voice, which should surely be the focal point of any recordings she makes, at times threatens to get lost amongst Joyce’s liberal application of reverb. The album is let down somewhat by these production choices, and while the songs and the performances themselves are both strong, this could have been a much more exciting addition to Harris’ canon if it were given a crisper, live sound, such as other albums produced by the likes of Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch or T. Bone Burnett, which would have allowed the poignancy of the lyrics and the beauty of her voice to be brought to the fore.
All in all, Hard Bargain is a welcome yet not essential addition to the Emmylou Harris catalogue and certainly does her no disservice when placed next to those past victories. It is unlikely to win her a great many new listeners, however long-time fans are sure to enjoy a record of this quality and maturity.
Originally posted on The AU Review on 20/05/2011. View original article.