Prime Cuts: Sweet Old World, Where Will I Be, Wrecking Ball
Loath it or adore it, "Wrecking Ball" is a landmark album in Emmylou Harris' luminous career. "Wrecking Ball" is to Harris what the "American Recordings" were to the late Johnny Cash. By the time the mid-90s rolled around, Harris was finding it more and more a challenge for her singles to gain traction with country radio. After one last tepid attempt with her 1993 "Cowgirl's Prayer," Harris knew that there was no point beating a dead horse. So, in 1995, Harris decided to ditch radio and record something different. And she couldn't have gone more leftfield than to partner with producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan &Peter Gabriel). "Wrecking Ball" bears no resemblance to the type of country music she has been known for. It's an idiosyncratic, atmospheric and mystical blend of rock that was far too forward thinking for its time.
For Harris' purists, many had wished that "Wrecking Ball" was the result of Harris' mid-life crisis that she could quickly get over. On the other hand, precisely because of this project, Harris has become cool again amongst college kids who would otherwise never have had the chance to hear her music. "Wrecking Ball" even won for Harris a Grammy Award for the Best Folk album in 1996. After almost 10 years of hindsight, "Wrecking Ball" is definitely not Harris' best record to date, but it isn't that shoddy either. Though "Wrecking Ball" was viewed by many as a radical daredevil in 1995, in the light of how country music has had evolved in the last ten years, "Wrecking Ball" sits quite comfortably amongst the Eric Church and the Sheryl Crow of today.
Let's first explore why "Wrecking Ball" is not Harris' best effort. Vocally, the wear and tear of the years of touring and recording has set in. Often camouflaged by the thick sounding drums, Harris' gossamer vocals strain throughout the record to hit the higher notes. Precisely because of her slurred and mumbled enunciation, try figuring out the lyrics without any aid from google or a lyrics sheet is a challenge in itself. On the other hand, what wins this record its brownie points? "Wrecking Ball" is by far one of the most thoughtful and spiritual recordings. The Lanois-penned "Where Will I Be" is an apocalyptic longing for redemption that carries one of the most arresting lines: "I walked through the teeth of the reaper's grin." Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" speaks of how Christ keeps us from sin and temptation while Julie Miller's "All My Tears" is a plangent cry for the Savior.
While many of Harris' peers who have ventured into rock are quick to dump songs with a strong melodic structure, this is not so with Harris. The melodious Lucinda Williams-penned "Sweet Old World" has a nostalgic affinity to it. And the arresting title cut "Wrecking Ball" could have been a huge hit for Harris if it were released a decade earlier. The reissued version comes in the form of three CDs: the album proper, an album of demos and outtakes and a documentary DVD of how the record was assembled.