If it turns out that the world continues to exist after my death — I can have my hopes/doubts, right? — then I need you to do something for me: put Gillian Welch’s album Time (The Revelator) on repeat at my memorial service.
There are albums — forgive the old-school parlance — that I love more, but none that I’d rather have guide me into the next world.
I first encountered Gillian Welch in December 2000, when I saw the Coen Bros. movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? at the multiplex below Union Square. I didn’t like the movie much, but was floored by the soundtrack. In particular, I was entranced by a couple of tunes by Alison Krauss. I picked up the soundtrack a few days later, and listened to the “roots” music over and over. (This didn’t bother my girlfriend as much as when I discovered Ted Hawkins’ Songs from Venice Beach a few years earlier, an event that nearly burned out the motor of my CD player.)
I found the Krauss songs — Down to the River to Pray and I’ll Fly Away — utterly mesmerizing, even if their southern Baptist sentiment didn’t exactly jibe with my first-gen, northeastern Jewish background. I noticed that the latter song was a duet with someone named Gillian Welch, but wasn’t able to get a taste of her voice from the song. Welch was also the voice of one of the sirens in the song Nobody but the Baby, but I again couldn’t pare her sound out from Krauss and Emmylou Harris.
One Friday, several months later, Slate ran a review of a new album by Welch and her partner David Rawlings. Written by Daniel Menaker, it was subtitled, “The oldest young people in country music.” Curiosity piqued, I gave it a read. It sounded like it was right up my alley:
In this album, it’s time that reveals its own meanings and purposes. Using compositions that range from a ditty to a slow romantic waltz to a slurry blues moan to a hypnotic 15-minute-plus Philip Glassy imagistic tour de force, the album assembles an alt-country “Waste Land,” with quotes from and references to and nods toward scores of events and songs and people in the nation’s and the singers’ lives.
I decided I would pick up the album next week. That was September 7, 2001.
Four days later, we had a new edition of The Waste Land. The Burial of the Dead, A Game of Chess, The Fire Sermon, What the Thunder Said — all the parts were there, with Death by Air standing in for Death by Water.
I forget why we went out the night of 9/11, but my girlfriend and I stopped in a Border’s bookstore in Paramus, NJ that evening. I recall wandering among the shelves, trying to summon that feeling of solace I get among books. It wasn’t happening. We were, like the rest of the populace, shocked out of our gourds.
I surrendered and got ready to leave. On the way out, I passed a CD listening station, and noticed that Time (The Revelator) was one of the six disks it offered. Without a pause I donned the clunky headphones and put on track 1.
I heard the title song’s opening lonely guitar notes, then Welch’s lamenting voice, and six-and-a-half minutes later, I took the headphones off, picked up a copy of the CD, and numbly walked to the cashier.
In his Slate review, Menaker describe it as a concept album, and wrote:
So, what’s the concept? The losses inevitably incurred by the passage of time — personal losses, musical losses, cultural losses, losses of innocence, losses of heroes, losses of dreams. Taken together, the songs here seem to want to redeem these losses in two ways: by weaving the tattered remains of the past into new whole cloth — the cloth of art — and by finding the hidden meaning in them that the passage of time reveals. The dictionary says that in the theological sense, “revelator,” a word first used at the beginning of the 19th century, means someone who knows and can articulate the will of God — St. John is often called “John the Revelator” in Baptist hymns and sermons.
That night, at the end of the world, I felt like I’d heard the voice.
My words will continue to fail, so why don’t you take a 6-minute break and watch/listen?
Rather than summon me back to 9/11, Time (The Revelator) seems to grow along with me. Sure, those first notes always evoke a world-weary sigh, as if I’m preparing to confront the great loneliness I felt on that day and its aftermath. (If my ex-girlfriend is reading this, please note: It was me, not you. But now, as the Beatles put it, my life has changed in oh so many ways.) But it keeps revealing new heights and depths over the course of the album, with Casey Jones and the whiskey pope, the Great Emancipator and the staggers and the jags, Elvis Presley Blues and five-band bills. It’s like discovering an America.
Menaker’s review cites a passel of lyrical and musical references in the album, but he misses the central one. He finds Gene Autry, Elvis, the Delmore Brothers, Bill Justis, James Brown, and folk and gospel traditions. His blind spot is the music of Blind Willie Johnson. It’s not to knock him; I only discovered Johnson a few years ago, but now that I have, the roots of Time (The Revelator) are much more apparent to me. That’s not to say that Welch and her partner David Rawlings made a derivative album; I’m just saying that the most direct lyrical precursor of its themes of apocalypticism and resurrection can be found in Johnson’s music.
As I grew older and allegedly wiser, as I found love and overcame my wheels-within-wheels paranoia, as my American experience deepened, this album seems to be waiting for me, like signs on a highway. The mysteries were all there, waiting to be discovered in its somnolent vocals and the stripped down sound of two guitars.
Time (The Revelator) builds up to a 15-minute coda, I Dream a Highway. The song takes up lyrical threads from the rest of the record and weaves them into a greater tapestry. It’s a regeneration, a highway ouroborous, a love that lasts through winters and decay, always returning to you, whoever you are.
One of my exes, a songwriter, told me she cried when she heard that song, because she knew she’d never be able to write something so beautiful. I can’t begin to do it justice. I’ve been trying for five years now, but this is the post you get.