Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
On the surface, Alison Krauss seems to defy bluegrass conventions. Granted, trying to determine what constitutes a musical genre can be headache-inducing, but with bluegrass there’s clearer parameters. Unlike its country music cousin, which is mostly defined by its lyrical focus of speaking for the downtrodden, bluegrass is mainly defined by its instrumental palette: the old-time music’s mountain modal sound, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and, due to its reliance on improvisation, a nod to jazz and blues (gospel, too).
But one doesn’t turn on a Krauss record expecting to hear fast-paced tunes about moonshine (the tempo may pick up if Dan Tyminski handles a tune through Krauss’ Union Station outfit, but still), nor is the presentation as ragged as bluegrass musicians usually prefer. Instead, she’s drawn on another underrated of the genre: ballad singing. Her presentation is clean and her voice is at the front of the mix, with the instrumental palette used to strengthen her performance; not the other way around.
Of course, that makes for the kind of downbeat, lonesome sound that’s heavy-handed even for some country and bluegrass fans, but I don’t count myself among that group. The general criticism for 2011’s Paper Airplane – Krauss and Union Station’s first album since 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways – was its sorrowful perspective and outright gloomier sound. Plus, it didn’t feel like much of an expansion of sound so much as a retread of what had been done before.
Fair enough, but I’ve always counted this among my favorite Krauss records (and, of course, as one of my favorite albums of the decade). What I think gets lost in the general conversation surrounding sad songs is the subtext beneath them – how even the gloomiest moments offer hope out of the darkness (you know, most of the time). And that shows when examining an album in the larger context rather than on a song-by-song basis. The opening title track is among my favorite songs of the decade, finding Krauss forced to accept the end of a relationship. Yet it catches her in the darkest moment between when the damage is done and when all that’s left to do is walk away, framing the story through her usual melancholic poetry and delivering an absolutely beautiful farewell because of it.
Despite that, the general tone suggests Krauss will eventually be all right, even if finding her in that exact moment suggests otherwise. Perseverance is an underlying theme on this record, both subtly and directly on tracks like the historical narrative of “Dust Bowl Children” or the old-fashioned story of “Bonita and Bill Butler” (both sung by Tyminski). If anything, the loneliness emanating from the stark production isolates those darker moments in time, like how the melody soars on the chorus of “Lie Awake” to highlight its creaking, underlying tension. Even a simpler love song in “My Love Follows You Where You Go” carries southern-Gothic tinges to suggest that “’til death do us part” may be for real in this situation, even after the love fades for one of them.
It’s a heavy listen, and I can’t say every moment necessarily delivers; the “Dimming Of The Day” cover drags on and doesn’t offer the same minor bite as other tracks to stand out much, and sad as it is to say it, the Chris Stapleton-penned “Miles To Go” is one of the more basic, less satisfying cuts on the album. But it’s also that track that offers some vestige of hope, even if that hope amounts to a somewhat predictable sentiment of needing to persevere through the hard times without offering much of a plan for how to do so. But then on “Sinking Stone,” her plan is to break free from the person holding her down, which is the general theme of this album, but really only starts to offer optimistic notes toward the end. On the note of covers that work, though, I’ve always loved her take on Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell,” where the sunnier melody sounds fantastic in a starker environment and where the real emotional payoff comes to fruition.
All of this is to say it’s spearheaded by Krauss herself – an impeccable vocalist (an all-time favorite of mine next to Emmylou Harris) whose clear tone and emotive ranges captures every feeling well. It’s as easy to bask in her joy on “My Opening Farewell” as she departs for a new journey as it is to hear her understated confusion and sadness on the title track or “Lie Awake.” Perhaps not the most innovative or flashiest bluegrass album of the 2010s, but as someone who hasn’t yet found his tipping point for this brand of darker, somber music, it’s a quiet favorite of mine.