I was channel flipping the other morning, and I came across Gillian Welch on AXStv, a pretty good cable channel for music (and movie trailers); they play a lot of concert recordings, interviews, etc. That morning it was an episode of Soundstage, I think, that featured Dar Williams and Gillian Welch. I missed Dar but got Gillian. And everything just kind of stopped.
There is something about this woman–her voice, her phrasing, her songs–that stops me in my tracks every single time. I don’t know what it is; I don’t care. I don’t want to name why she affects me so deeply. That would take some of the wonder out of it. And she is a wonder. Along with her frequent collaborator David Rawlings, Welch weaves a web of sorrow, mystery, fear, and frustration that ensnares you with not just the sheer power of the ambiguous and mixed emotions, but in their utter inevitability. There is no other way for the characters in her songs to see the world. It is out of their control, and they are careening and caroming through their lives without a single clue as to what any of it means.
There is a distinct lack of context in her songs. Like the stunning “Elvis Presley Blues,” (from the same album) this song drops you into a place where time simply doesn’t exist. The story, as much as there is one, is of a woman who is profoundly disconnected from her lover, from herself, from the world. There is no stated reason for the disconnect, no way to place her profound solitude in a world of action and reaction. It simply is. The only constant she sees is the fact that eventually time reveals everything. There’s an irony there: that time is the one thing that moves and makes sense in this song that is in almost every other way essentially timeless.
The song ends on what I’d call an open note. The last few seconds seem to be leading toward a concluding riff, but then it just stops. There is no conclusion, not really. And that’s about as good a metaphor for life and death as I think you’re ever going to get in art.