Emmylou Harris: “All I Intended to Be”
Emmylou Harris offers an explanation of her new album’s title in the thank-you section of the liner notes, expressing her gratitude to the musicians who play on the record for “helping me to be all I ever intended-a singer of songs, a writer of songs, and a strummer of a few chords…” It’s a fitting description of her work not only on this album, but over the course of her whole storied career. Surely it’s no exaggeration at this point to call her one of the greatest, most consistent artists of the past fifty years, but she hasn’t gotten there by doing anything particularly radical; she’s made her name chiefly as an interpreter of songs, a vocalist of unsurpassed grace, and, occasionally, a writer of heartfelt, country-rock poetry. Very few of her albums qualify as groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean they don’t qualify as great; Luxury Liner might not have turned the roots-rock genre on its side, but it did set the new standard for it.
No one will herald All I Intended to Be for being groundbreaking, but they might praise it as one of the most stately and elegant albums in her entire catalog-and they’d be right, which is really saying something, as Emmylou has made her name on her effortlessness and charm. And effortless it certainly is-these thirteen tracks inhabit that same intersection of country and folk where Emmylou has been seen more than once over the past few decades, acoustic guitar and songbook in hand. It’s a low-key, acoustic affair, gentle and meditative, uniformly slow in tempo, with the emphasis on the singer and the songs.
In other words: She’s either playing to her strengths or resting on her laurels, depending on who you talk to. Really, it probably falls somewhere in between. Emmylou is in that enviable place where she can move forward by looking back; she’s accomplished so much already that for her to consolidate her strengths and reflect on her past, it seems to signal a whole host of new directions for the future. If nothing else, it reminds us of why she’s so essential, and why, no matter how many times we’ve heard this kind of thing before, she does it better than anybody.
The reflective spirit of the title doesn’t just extend to the mellow mood, either; it extends also to her choice to work with producer Brian Ahern, who helmed many of her standard-setting albums in the 70s and 80s, and, of course, in the songs themselves. A collection of some of Emmylou’s personal favorites, as well as some new compositions, the record boasts classics by Billy Joe Shaver and Jude Johnstone, newer numbers by the likes of Tracy Chapman, a Patty Griffin B-side, and a few of her own cuts. She even brings in some of her favorite harmony partners-Buddy Miller and Dolly Parton-and the result is an album of handsome, exceedingly graceful and organic folk songs, tinted with a dash of country and sung with the voice of an angel.
Of course, one could make the argument that she’s done this kind of thing so much before-and inspired so many imitators-that the album has a hard time really sinking its teeth in and making a strong impression, which isn’t entirely wrong. Certainly, Ahern’s production is well-mannered to the point that it comes across as a bit of a roots-rock cliché, and the lethargic tempo means that these songs tend to blend together, and, at thirteen songs long, it takes a lot of patience to get through it all.
It’s a shame Ahern didn’t coax Emmylou into bringing to this album some of the energy of Wrecking Ball, or some of the humor and variety that spiced up their earlier collaborations together. As it is, the record feels a lot more monochromatic-and a lot longer-than it really should. Still, there’s no denying that it’s an album of pristine beauty, that these songs are full of heart and Emmylou’s performance marked by elegance and ease. And that’s more than enough to make it a pleasant listen-if not an entirely gripping or thrilling one-from an artist whose good intentions have once again been matched by her creative gift.