What does it sound like?:
Simply, this doesn’t sound much like a typical Joan Baez album. Forget the semi operatic approach from her early days, nowadays her voice sounds lived in and sometimes world weary. Frankly, she seems to struggle now to reach some top notes. Hasten to add that this is not necessarily a bad thing – it means that the songs take centre stage rather than the performance.
Firstly it comes as a surprise that for her first album in ten years that this is essentially a covers album; there is not one of her own songs here. On reflection, perhaps she has always been a greater interpreter of other’s songs rather than a first rate songwriter.
The title track is the opener, a song by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, which sets the tone of the album – a simple, clear, intimate, arrangement and a tale of leaving, intimations of mortality, regret, and the state of the world – a typical Waits tune, this is rather wonderful.
‘Be Of Good Heart’ is a Josh Ritter song of loss, as are many here, but this addresses someone leaving her. It is a slight song in many ways, but it has a lovely arrangement which carries it.
Now it gets very dark… ‘Another World’ is an extraordinarily intimate song which addresses mortality, and it brings you up short to listen to someone sing about the prospect of losing everything in this world. Just employing a strummed acoustic guitar and her voice, this track is the centrepiece of this album, and if you only listen to one song then make it this one.
Baez has never lost sight of her political standpoint and ‘Civil War’ must have been included because of the current political climate in the US – ‘Every truth carries blame, And every light reveals some shame’ …indeed.
‘The Things That We Are Made Of’ is a lovely elegiac Mary Chapin Carpenter song of memory and regret, with a superb piano and acoustic arrangement – simply beautiful.
As I write this, news has come through of another US school shooting which makes listening to ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ a poignant and timely song. Time was when Joan would have wrung every emotion out of her voice on a song like this, but here it is the lyrics that are emphasised and allowed to do the work.
‘Last Leaf’ is a another Tom Waits song and is sung to a simple acoustic guitar with some tasteful slide and dulcimer (?), which again addresses her mortality and loss.
Silver Blade, the second Josh Ritter song here, recalls some of her very early work with traditional story telling songs, but the voice now has a husky edge which transforms the listening experience.
‘The Great Correction’ (Eliza Gilkyson) is a another political song about the state of the Union and of hope for change – this has a country arrangement, which is a nice juxtaposition with the lyrical content.
‘I Wish The Wars Were All Over’ (Tim Eriksen) is an obvious album closer – this could have been sung in a 60s folk club and not been out of place, with a tale of Pretty Polly telling of Billy fighting for the King, this is actually a 21st century song. This brings us back to where Baez started – with folk and protest.
What does it all *mean*?
I was a Joan fan from the early 60s and it is easy to forget what a pivotal figure she was. I haven’t heard everything she’s done (some 30 albums), but this album would be a fine closer to her recording career if that is what it turns out to be – the songs certainly suggest this could well be the case. She will be touring for the final time soon – so a giant of music gently bows out with one of her best.
Goes well with…
Might suit people who like…
Folk (obviously), singer/songwriter type stuff.