Eight years ago, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings released the exploratory and occasionally misunderstood "Soul Journey," where Welch took a more directly personal stance in her writing as the duo injected a shade more vitality (and electricity) into their old time musical presentation. Maybe the album's mixed reviews had a negative impact on Welch, or maybe her creative well was lowered by a quartet of excellent albums over a seven-year period. In any event, Welch was beset by a writing block that short-circuited every attempt to conquer it; the trend was reversed in 2009 when the pair switched spots on the marquee and they released the well-received "A Friend of a Friend" as the Dave Rawlings Machine.
Subjugating her role in the duo must have been just the tonic for Welch, because "The Harrow and the Harvest" stands with the best of their work together. Like "Soul Journey," "The Harrow and the Harvest" finds Welch writing as more of an active participant rather than detached observer, like the melancholy heartbreak victim in Dark Turn of Mind or the hard love/hard luck girl in Tennessee. The inevitable flow of life is a familiar theme for Welch on "The Harrow and the Harvest" with a trio of songs offering interestingly similar titles and messages and distinct musical frames; the sad acceptance of The Way It Will Be, the jaunty and jaundiced The Way It Goes and the loping drawl of The Way the Whole Thing Ends.
"The Harrow and the Harvest" departs from "Soul Journey" with Welch and Rawlings maintaining an acoustic profile but, like the best of their work to date, they modernize their old time folk/bluegrass texture with a contemporary lyrical perspective ("Becky Johnson bought the farm, put a needle in her arm/That's the way that it goes, that's the way..."). The song craft and execution on "The Harrow and the Harvest" are high, which hopefully represents a revitalization of Welch's bound muse and a faster turnaround for the next album.