There ought to be a genre name for the other kind of art-rock—music that includes all the ridiculously extreme stuff, all the stuff that is no good for you, all the stuff that painters listen to. There’s no kinder-sounding, more unassuming performer of this free-space music at the moment than Gillian Welch. She’s so prim and unassertive she gets away with an aesthetic that would seem pretentious from most anybody else—Hell Among the Yearlings, her second album, sounds like a title pulled out of Cormac McCarthy’s wastebasket. On the back cover of her 1996 debut, there’s a creepy black-and-white photo of a child’s discarded shoe, and it’s as harsh an image of a youth snuffed out as anything Korn has tried. But because the music on that first album drives so gently, because its monomania plays so pretty, the blurring of death and sex and the pull of nihilism slides right beneath your door. On her new album the first song is sung by a woman who murders her rapist, the second by a man who contemplates his sins, and the fourth by a morphine addict. We’ve had Girl Power, now it’s time for Dead Girl Power, and it most definitely is bad for you. I bet right now there are skinny girls sitting on studio floors, listening to Welch, and working on some pretty amazing paintings.
Back before Girl Power was about thirtyish guys wishing they were teenage girls, it was supposed to be about women feeling strong on their own. But rather than being about pleasure and power, Welch’s songs are about work and weariness. Her Depression-era hill-country ballads are often about a girl striking out on her own and achieving only failure, getting so far out there that what keeps her going is a longing for everything that drove her away in the first place.
Welsh draws from an Appalachian string music tradition, she stocks her songs with a cast of ’30s migrants and hobos and misfits, she wears gingham dresses, and her first album was called Revival—she wants you to see her as a new traditionalist. That may be her best bet for securing an audience, and may explain why this Southern California native (she discovered bluegrass in the hillbilly hotbed of Santa Cruz) now lives in Nashville. But her heart truly isn’t buried in past reveries. Revival is a deft way of saying you’re looking backward, but the other kind of revival implied in the title is her abiding interest, and it should interest us too. The dead she wants to bring to life seem something more than figurative; not to be judgmental, but Welsh is a little bit more interested in cadavers than a well-adjusted person should be. Not since Nick Cave shoplifted a bunch of Faulkner have there been this many fresh-dug graves and wayward kin on one album. Only with Welch, unlike Cave, there’s nothing wanton about it. When she sings “I’m not afraid to die,” beckoning you to the woods in her whispering pines drawl, she’s telling you nothing you don’t already know. “Let every work of my own hand/Be broken by and by,” is her curse, and however airily she releases the words, you sense those hands clapping in pleasure at the thought of all that scorched earth. She’s freak-kay.
Overall, Welch has reimagined an old favorite—she’s Parker Posey playing Cain cast out on the blacktop, walking toward the dust clouds. The arrangements, virtually the entire record played by just her and cowriter-companion David Rawlings, are glasslike—she and producer T Bone Burnett pare all extraneous historical evocations, keep it just the right side of minimalism. The disciplined approach eschews the cabaret feel of some of Burnett’s other productions. But the clincher is Welch’s voice. There’s a tamped-down flatness to it, which gives way to gleeful swoops at all the emotionally wrong moments—like when guilt seems appropriate. She gently bears down on a line as if to fight anyone who’d steer her fate. Older than she is, that voice is gonna outlast us all. It drifts on, and that drift is what makes the Cain story so plausible—she never sings as if her fate is unfair. She accepts everything. She sings like she deserves everything that happens.
I wish I was surer that Welch thought any of this connected to today—that she wasn’t a self-created artifact like some creepy new rockabilly guy. Here we are in an era when the market’s bubble does not burst, when things keep going up and up for those who are, as the president sweetly puts it, “in the winner’s circle,” and the rest seem permanently marooned outside it. And Welch gives no sign that she’s noticed. The Dorothea Langestyle sunken-cheek exhaustion she captures certainly carried a strong element of protest back when Lange was taking her photographs, and maybe there’s a critique buried down deep in Welch’s music, but damned if I can hear it. All I know for sure is that she is practically alone in turning her back on abundance right now, and she does it in a way that removes all traces of who she is. This is a chaste negation, but it’s impossible to say of what. Where in a song like “2 Kool To Be Forgetten,” Lucinda Williams divines the end of time from a stream of honky-tonk details, Welch ignores the specifics and cuts to the finish. She might bump into Williams at the thrift shop, but Welch seems far more like Beth Orton, another folkie who dreams best when she dreams only of nothingness. Freaky, yeah, and a minor artist. But like Orton, Welch is a minor artist whose irresponsible single-mindedness can open up ever freakier spaces.