Back in my early twenties, when I was maybe 22 or 23, I was at a friend’s wedding with a bunch of folks I’d known since high school. This was the first person in our group of friends to get married (she’s now divorced – happily, from what I hear) and the conversation naturally turned to Who Would Get Married Next. My friend Marlayna’s father remarked (okay, I can’t remember if Marlayna told us her dad had said this or if he was physically there and said it at the time. Either way, it is attributable to the late, great Al S., who departed for wherever the very best Catholics go [I imagine it as a place in Heaven with lots of rich, Midwestern food and no guilt whatsoever] far too soon for anyone’s liking) that it was funny to see us young people at a friend’s wedding trying to figure out who would be next to go down the aisle because at his age, he mostly went to friend’s funerals and sat around discussing Who Would Get Buried Next with his fellow survivors.
This memory occurs to me repeatedly as I sit here listening to and considering Hard Bargain, the new album by 64-year-old Emmylou Harris, who still has one of the best voices in music. Some of Harris’s friends, namely Gram Parsons, departed when she was fairly young. But at her age, though she is still prolific and spirited (two great facts about Emmylou Harris: Hard Bargain is her 25th album and she runs a dog shelter on her property in Nashville), it’s only natural to contemplate mortality and to pay tribute to loved ones who have passed before her. Though that theme can make for a somewhat depressing listen, it can also be the stuff of really gorgeous music (see basically the last twenty years of Johnny Cash’s career).
But I’ve gotta tell ya: Hard Bargain doesn’t strike me as being all that depressing or even all that grim, for which I have to give credit to Harris’s one hundred percent lovely singing and to her recognition that, as she says on “New Orleans,” “the blues were made to make us strong.” While death is undoubtedly the dominant theme of the record (it is directly or indirectly involved in more than half of the tracks), Harris is wise enough to affirm life on Hard Bargain, even when that’s a difficult task. The title track alludes to this fact, paying quiet tribute to someone who won’t let the narrator stay down for too long (“How’s a girl supposed to fail/ With someone like you around them?”).
In the last few years, Emmylou Harris has made much of her conscious decision to move from being an admittedly excellent interpreter of other people’s songs (her cover of Delbert McClinton’s “Two More Bottles of Wine” is worth every bit of hype it has ever received. Ever) to a formidable songwriter in her own right. While Hard Bargain certainly reflects a lot of Harris’s personal pain, it also finds her telling stories of the suffering of others. “Home Sweet Home” is told from the perspective of a homeless person who is – probably intentionally – unseen by passersby; “The Ship On His Arm” tells the story of a young soldier and the woman (“Her love is an anchor/ Her love is forever”) who is waiting for him at home; and “My Name is Emmett Till” tells the (unfortunately true) story of a fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 for the unspeakable crime of speaking to a white woman.
All of these tales of death and loss were recorded (at a studio named – no joke – Tragedy/Tragedy in Nashville) as a trio – Emmylou Harris on vocals and acoustic guitar, producer Jay Joyce (who wrote album closer “Cross Yourself”) on electric guitar, bass, synth, et cetera, and Giles Reaves on drums, piano, vibraphone and pump organ. The long list of instruments handled by Joyce and Reaves reveals that, while much of Hard Bargain is easily identifiable as country music, the album is lovingly stuffed with textures that push the genre forward without thrusting it into horrible pop-crossover territory. There are moments on “Big Black Dog” that wouldn’t be out of place on a Tom Waits record (can we get someone working on an Emmylou Harris/ Tom Waits duets album?), for instance.
The album is so thematically consistent that, for some listeners, it might start to drag a little toward its final third. You’ll have to decide that for yourself. Myself, I like listening to Emmylou Harris sing so much that, apart from a brief weekend detour with the National’s High Violet (that album still fucking kills), Hard Bargain has been the only album I’ve listened to for the last five days. As I listen to it this morning, for perhaps the nth time, I find it to be deeply affecting, utterly beautiful and incredibly honest.
It was hard to find a context in which to think of Hard Bargain at first, because it initially felt weird for me to think about so much death and sorrow at 31 years of age. What could it possibly mean for me? I haven’t seen half the shit that Emmylou Harris has seen but the more I think about it, I’ve seen plenty. Every day now, I am older than my sister ever got to be (31 years, three months and about four days). I know far too many people who have lost parents, spouses, and/or children far too soon. A Dickensian amount of suffering is no prerequisite for enjoying these songs, but I do find that the album resonates deeply with my sadder memories.
In his essay “Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art,” Joseph Campbell wrote, “Ego-shattering, truly tragic pity unites us with the human – not with the Communist, Fascist, Muslim, or Christian – sufferer. Moreover, this pity, as experienced through art, is in the way of a yea, not a nay; for inherently, art is an affirmation, not negation, of phenomenality.” Great art, in other words, affirms the experience of being human in the face not just of ineffable joy but also unimaginable loss. The heroine of Harris’s “Nobody” spends a lifetime waiting for love and, in her twilight years, “wraps her empty arms around the world.” The more I listen to it, the more Hard Bargain feels like Emmylou Harris’s attempt to wrap her arms around the world and, though it may sound like she’s singing to the world of loss and darkness, what lies underneath it is a breathy, hard-won “yea” to everything it is to be human.