Emmylou Harris' world is a tough place for a soft feeling. Loss, disappointment and betrayal are as common in her songs as long notes and pretty choruses; death, physical or emotional, is the fact of life. So, on her new CD, Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch), a seemingly simple declaration of love--"Nobody loves you like I do"--has the twist of a curse or a threat. Or a declaration of defeat: "I love ya like a user needs a drug." Or a grudging tribute to the man who left a scar: "I will always think of you [because]/ You made me believe in tragedy." Yet if the singer's spirit can sound crushed, the listener's spirit soars because nothing has the rising poignancy of a voice in exquisite agony.
Decades ago, when Harris was a cowgirl angel with eight consecutive platinum albums, that voice was as pure as a crystal vase in a backwoods antique store. Now the vase has a few cracks in it, which both prove its age and add to its value. Her voice's tensile strength, born of suffering and surviving, makes her not just an interpreter of pain but a witness to it, as in Bang the Drum Slowly, about her late father, or the title tune, about a childhood friend with a run of bad luck ("One thing they don't tell you 'bout the blues when you got 'em/ You keep on fallin' 'cause there ain't no bottom"). Her glottal throb on these dozen tunes purifies the funereal sentiments; it's as if the lines on a condolence card were raised to a kind of folk art.
For her first solo studio CD in five years, Harris wrote almost all the songs. She has a gift for anthems and elegies, with stark poetic images in the verses and hum-along refrains of tura-luras and alleluias. As encased in producer Matthew Burn's chugging, clanging percussion, Harris' voice gives testimony to a life of adversity and the ability to smile--or at least sing--through it.
How long does it take a mature heart to break, beautifully, into 12 pieces? Fifty-six minutes.
--By Richard Corliss