It’s hard to fathom that two decades have passed since Emmylou Harris recast her already regal Americana expertise within the otherworldly ambience Daniel Lanois designed for her extraordinary Wrecking Ball album. A triumph for both artists, the record was a folk project at heart that took music by Neil Young (the title tune), Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Anna McGarrigle, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Julie Miller and others and placed them in spacious soundscapes. There, echoing chimes of Lanois’ guitar work and the far rumble of percussion by U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. made Harris’ vocals sound alternately spiritual and ghostly.
It’s no wonder then that on a new double CD/single DVD anniversary edition, Wrecking Ball retains a country roots sensibility while attaining a sound that is altogether ghostly. You hear it in the way she makes Dylan’s Every Grain of Sand sound like a comforting prayer, but also in how she captures the depth of two varied but devastating portraits of loss in Williams’ Sweet Old World and Earle’s Goodbye.
“It is of inestimable worth when an artist tells the truth,” writes Welch in the liner notes to this new Wrecking Ball deluxe edition. “To my ear, this is a truthful record, and as such, a timeless one. Nevertheless, it would be an omission not to mention how meaningful Wrecking Ball was in the moment it came out, especially for those of us who were casting about Nashville, trying to figure out the possible relevance and face of folk music at the close of the 20th century.”
Such “casting about” is evident on the second disc of this reissue, which offers a baker’s dozen of demo recordings and outtakes from the original Wrecking Ball. The first is a fully completed version of Lanois’ Still Water that reflects the subtle, contemplative but pronounced tone of the entire Wrecking Ball album. One imagines it was left off the record for the sake of balance, as Lanois’ songwriting was already represented by the gorgeously gray album opener Where Will I Be.
Other delights sport less sheen, like Harris/Lanois demo-style duet versions of Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger Song and Richard Thompson’s How Will I Ever Be Simple Again – tunes that speak to the spiritual unrest, reserved regret and poetic ambience that surround Wrecking Ball. An alternate version of David Olney’s Deeper Well, served up as a slice of back porch gospel, adds further to the insight provided by the reissue.
As a testament to Harris’ restless, rootsy ingenuity, Wrecking Ball is an unrivaled career peak. As an example of the possibilities presented to and by late 20th century folk music, it remains essential listening.