February 5, 2004

The Repeat Button: Gillian Welch

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Unless you’re Pink Floyd, putting a 14-minute track on an otherwise orthodox album is a “look-at-me” stunt that’s just a waste of master tape. But Gillian Welch treats the epic close of 2001’s Revelator as just another song instead of a barren stylistic experiment. Her approach yields the powerful, narcotic, dirge-like “I Dream A Highway,” which may be the perfect example of Welch’s darkly mythic take on America.

With even less orchestration than usual, the hush in which the song almost drowns demands attention for Welch’s every lyric and vocal phrase. Her opening description of the highway — “a winding river/ with a band of gold/ a silver vision/ come to rest my soul” –masterfully evokes the silence and infinity of a night ride home on deserted roads. Welch’s longtime collaborator, David Rawlings, frames her lonely journey with achingly slow-picked acoustic guitar and the most minimal of strings. Every nuance of the singer’s phrasing is seamlessly matched by the music as the instruments almost become back-up singers themselves.

Some of Welch’s lines sound oddly familiar and jarring at the same time. She has a way of taking an old saying and twisting it so that an utterly original thought takes on the inevitability of a proverb. An especially fine bridge has her riffing brilliantly on the sometimes vicious aspect of love: “I take you as a viper into my head/ a knife into my bed/ arsenic and I’m fed.” She counters her universal themes with finely observed, every-day scenes. At breakfast in a diner, still daydreaming about the song’s never-named goal, she says: “I watch the waitress for a million years/ and dream a highway back to you,” transforming the literal highway into metaphor before she gets back on the road again.

There’s nothing more inexorably affecting than the struggle to get back home, and the understated desperation — the need with which Welch sings about the lover from whom she’s been absent too long — reveals that her home is not so much a place as a person.

Archived article by Erica Stein