I’ve been sick all week and on Tuesday I even took the first sick day off work I can remember in years. Today is the first day I woke up and felt like I’ve almost got this thing beat. Good thing, too, because the weekend is arriving early for me and I don’t want to waste a single moment of it.
Let’s get it started with a music review!
Disc 973 is…Bluebird
Artist: Emmylou Harris
Year of Release: 1988
What’s up with the Cover? Emmylou, making an ordinary eighties country dress look elegant.
How I Came To Know It: About a year ago I undertook to listen to all the Emmylou albums I didn’t have. I then started purchasing all the ones I liked. “Bluebird” was one of my most recent finds.
How It Stacks Up: My journey through Emmylou’s discography has been fruitful. When I last reviewed an Emmylou album back in May 2016 I had 11 of her solo albums. I now have 14 and I’m only on the search for one more (1990’s “Brand New Dance”). Of the 14 I have, “Bluebird” is just out of top tier, but not by much. I’ll put it 7th.
Ratings: 4 stars
The eighties weren’t the greatest decade for Emmylou Harris. Of the eight records I’ve listened to from that era only three hold any interest for me: 1980’s “Roses in the Snow”, 1985’s “The Ballad of Sally Rose” and “Bluebird.” Coming out in 1989, “Bluebird” left the decade on a high note.
Emmylou’s early career is strongly bluegrass, and through the eighties you can feel her exploring other aspects of country music. Her creativity is fearless, with mixed results, but on “Bluebird” you can start to see the emergence of a new sound.
The bluegrass chord progressions are still notable here and there, but there is a contemporary folk feel creeping into the music, and a willingness to go a little more electric and orchestral.
Emmylou’s incredible ear for a good song is on full display. She only writes two songs (one is co-written with then-husband Paul Kennerley). Both are solid break up songs. “Heartbreak Hill” delivers a jaunty slice of break-up pie and “A River For Him” is a slow processional which feels like a church hymn, until you realize it is a parting song of an earthly love, made transcendent through Harris’ voice.
Most of the record is occupied with other great songwriters, from which Harris has curated similar songs of loss. All of them are sung in a quiet reverent tone, and that ever-present and instantly recognizable Emmylou quaver that has broken a thousand hearts, including mine.
The best and bluest of the bunch is “Icy Blue Heart,” a John Hiatt cover about broken people trying to find a spark after years of disappointment and solitude. When Harris sings it she takes it a whole new level, making you feel the vast emotional devastation of all the years these two sad people are trying to overcome just to reach each other:
“She came on to him like a slow moving cold front
His beer was warmer that the look in her eye
She sat on the stool, and she said ‘What do you want
She said ‘Give me a love that don't freeze up inside’
"He said, 'I have melted some hearts in my time dear
But to sit next to you, Lord I shiver and shake
And if I knew love, well I don't think I'd be here
Askin' myself if I had what it takes
To melt your icy blue heart'”
It sounds like a cheesy seventies movie, but when Emmylou sings that final line her voice climbs up into the top of her range like a bird set free from gravity and damn it if you don't believe the scene.
Later on the record Emmylou will similarly remake the McGarrigle Sisters’ “Love Is” and Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” in her own image; frail and proud and powerful.
The arrangements on the record are a little busy, but they work. Some of the solos sound very eighties but they are muted and laid back enough that they don’t detract from the strong bones of these great songs.
The only thing preventing “Bluebird” from soaring higher is the production, which sounds tinny and distant throughout. There are sections where the shake of a tambourine sounds so thin I thought at first it was static or water in my headphones.
Fortunately even bad production can’t hold back the emotional honesty with which Emmylou Harris approaches a song. She doesn’t attack it so much as lets it take her over and then speaks its truth. With all those hints of a big sound that isn’t quite big enough, it is no surprise that Daniel Lanois would connect with her three albums later to make the classic “Wrecking Ball.” That is a slightly better album with much better production, but the seeds of Emmylou’s modern sound can be found on “Bluebird”.
Best tracks: Heaven Only Knows, You’ve Been On My Mind, Icy Blue Heart, Love Is, No Regrets, I Still Miss Someone, A River for Him