Emmylou Harris’ 26th album begins with what sounds like an ode to Gram Parsons, her musical partner in the early 1970s and one of the progenitors of the alt-country scene. Harris has been down this–ahem–road before, most famously on the beautifully devastating “Boulder to Birmingham,” from her 1975 album Pieces of Sky. “The Road” is a curiously backwards-looking introduction to Hard Bargain, if only because the album sounds fairly contemporary, leaving that early Parsons sound behind. If she’s looking backwards, it’s only to 1996’s Wrecking Ball, the post-Nashville album that redefined her for a new audience and introduced a new sound that was a reinterpretation of Parsons’ famous phrase “cosmic American music.”
“The Road” is, more largely, a fine eulogy for anybody Harris has ever shared the road with, anyone who’s ever been out there in America playing shows night after night after night. It shifts and changes fluidly, the momentum of the pre-chorus leading into the high, wordless chorus, a fireworks display for her inimitable vocals. Her voice has always been the draw; it’s perhaps one of the most naturally beautiful instruments in country music, and the years have added an evocative grit that’s the musical equivalent to her shock of silver hair.
Despite taking its title from a Ron Sexsmith song, Hard Bargain is an anomaly in Harris late-career catalog, in that she wrote almost all of the songs herself. She has a clear, direct lyrical style, penning plainspoken poetry that doesn’t indulge any showiness. More crucially, these songs give the impression that Harris writes not to explain herself, but to figure things out. Hard Bargain is best when she writes toward some kind of epiphany, as on “Nobody” and “The Road.” “I have spent my whole life out here workin’ on the blues,” she sings on the latter, suggesting that her rootlessness inspires her music and vice versa.
Harris recorded Hard Bargain with Nashville musician Jay Joyce, who produces and is one of two backing musicians on the album, the other being drummer Gil Reaves. Despite the number of people involved, the sound on Hard Bargain is full and shimmery, reminiscent of the lustrous sound of Wrecking Ball rather than the staid middlebrow folk of 2008’s All That I Intended to Be. The spare sound frames her words and vocals nicely, and adds an air of spontaneity to the proceedings. Nothing sounds fussed over.
At times, however, Harris sounds too stuck in the past, not simply eulogizing Parsons and Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle (who died in 2010) but also writing a ballad about Emmett Till, a black Mississippi teenager murdered by a white mob in 1955. The latter is deeply empathetic, with Harris literally singing from the point of view of Till and imagining how his life might have turned out without that atrocious act of violence. Still, there’s a certain safety in the distant past; especially for an album emphasizing Harris’ songwriting, Hard Bargain is best when its subjects are more recent, more topical, more immediate.
It’s telling that the feistiest, most propulsive song on Hard Bargain is called “New Orleans,” which could be the city’s new fight song: “The whole world stood to watch us drown, but we took it to a higher ground.” Get a stadium of Saints fans singing along and the song will reach its fullest potential. Harris has already said that she’s working on a follow-up, which will likely keep her out on the road and reconsidering her past, which is a worthwhile subject so long as she keeps writing her own material.