The 1995 album Wrecking Ball towers as the Mount Everest of Emmylou Harris’ recording career. Before that, she was a very hip country neo-traditionalist—like Dwight Yoakam—with a connoisseur’s taste in folk music and rock ‘n’ roll, thanks to her internship with Gram Parsons. Following it, she was a white-haired pop goddess.
Surrounded by Daniel Lanois’ cosmic wash of a rock production, singing ethereally as if wandering through a David Lynch-directed dream, she established a hierarchy of our greatest living singer-songwriters (plus Jimi Hendrix) by whom she chose to cover.
Harris has been amazingly prolific since Wrecking Ball, especially singing with others or as part of multi-artist projects. But she’s been cautious about solo albums with new studio material; All I Intended To Be is just her third major-label effort in that vein, following Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace.
It’s been hard telling where she wanted to go on her last two records, which were nevertheless musically strong. Would she continue with Lanois-style sonic mysticism, develop her own voice as a songwriter, or step back a few steps into being a more traditional-sounding interpreter? Turns out she gets the balance just right on All I Intended. Produced by Brian Ahern, the record recalls doesn't try to recreate Wrecking Ball, while also being earthy and more direct.
There is still the sense of nature-inspired awe that carries a spiritual dimension, as on Jack Wesley Routh’s “Shores of White Sand” and Patty Griffin’s “Moon Song.” But there are also songs (like Harris’ own “Broken Man’s Lament,” about a lonely auto mechanic whose wife left him to sing like Patsy Cline) that simply exhibit strong Americana storytelling in the John Prine tradition. Elsewhere, she opts for the soulfully spare, like a duet with John Starling on Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.”
For a while now, Harris has been moving toward the rock-tinged folk aesthetic of Montreal’s Anna and Kate McGarrigle, whose songs seem somehow both ancient and contemporary. Here, Harris becomes an honorary third McGarrigle sister on “How She Could Sing the Wildwood Flower” and “Sailing Round the Room,” which the trio co-wrote and on which the McGarrigles provide enchanting harmonies.
It’s hard to imagine better compatriots for Harris. Both songs are melodically gorgeous and lyrically substantive, with singing that is wistfully romantic but never sweet. Here's hoping they continue working together, and that Harris continues her intriguing evolution as an iconic artist.