Old Yellow Moon
Emmylou Harris has been in a sort of cruise-control mode for the last decade and a half – well, if not since Wrecking Ball then certainly since Red Dirt Girl (she earns extra marks there for stepping up in the songwriting department). The small handful of albums post-Red Dirt have not at all been bad and there’s always something to enjoy but it’s just safe and obvious, it feels lacking in heart, soul, grit – or if it’s there it’s the cruise-control versions.
The best album she’s done since Red Dirt Girl, easily, was the duets record with Mark Knopfler but I figure a lot of people are not prepared to forgive Knopfler for the mid-80s videos, headbands and riffing – that seems both silly and likely. Sadly.
So here Harris is working with a duet-partner, but this time it’s long-serving Rodney Crowell (he has stepped out to help others and record his own music along the way). Crowell and Harris work well together – that much is obvious – and though it’s not entirely clear why Crowell has been given the co-headlining credit this time around it is a positive; to actually hear slightly less of Emmylou on a record is a bonus; it’s the best way to appreciate her obvious gifts as a song-enhancer, an angel that hovers over tunes.
Remember when Emmylou was everyone’s duet partner, one time particularly in the seventies and then again in the early 2000s? And whether it was her and Bob on Desire or her and Bright Eyes it was always great; you always spotted her voice straight away and felt all the better for it – the songs seeming better because of Emmylou’s tender caress.
Listening to Old Yellow Moon reminds me of the great “cameos” Emmylou offered, whether with Neil Diamond or Ryan Adams – and it reminds me of that record with Knopfler.
It also takes me back to Red Dirt Girl and is like a straight-down-the-line country/honky-tonk version of the Wrecking Ball album. Strong songs – but they have been chosen to fit a sombre, reflective mood. Crowell and Harris both sing of aging, of continuing to move on with lived-in bodies, weary spirits and restless souls. To hear Harris sing Back When We Were Beautiful is to hear another career high – at a time when she can be forgiven for keeping the foot off the gas, staying on with the cruise-control.
If you’ve done the time with Harris and Crowell you’ll spot references back to their earliest work together too; songs from their shared past and sounds that feel like they’ve been lifted out from the cupboard, dusted off and tried again.
Old Yellow Moon is the sort of album you can look at – figure you know exactly what it will sound like, then you play it, you’re correct. But you’re also very happy. It plays as it should, it sounds great. The playing – perfect country music – is worth hearing; it’s worth having the album just for the instrumental backing. But there’s such huge warmth between Crowell and Harris, such an understanding of each other – and how both can serve a tune, together and alone. So there’s that. And there’s a bunch of correctly-chosen, perfectly realised tunes.
It probably does no good to end here by trotting out that this is her best record in a decade or so. But it is. So I will.