The squirrelly designs of two new albums by Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle are first suggested by their titles.
Harris' Hard Bargain is a faithful but world-weary view of love, loss and solitude that finds the Americana matriarch writing 11 of the album's 13 tunes — a feat she has equaled on only three previous albums during her 36-year recording career. But the title tune proves to be one of the exceptions. It's a sublime Ron Sexsmith song set to banjo melodies and drum loops as it echoes the down-but-not-at-all-out sentiments reflected in the original material.
"I'm a bit run-down, but I'm OK," Harris, who turned 64 earlier this month, sings at the onset of the Sexsmith song. "Just feel like calling it a day."
Country renegade Earle named his T Bone Burnett-produced I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive after the last single Hank Williams released during his lifetime. It doubles as the title of a Williams-informed novel Earle that will be released in May.
But the Williams song itself is absent. Instead, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive is a crisp, band-oriented, jamboree-style venture that scans the ruins of morally destitute Washington (Little Emperor) and the oil-drenched waters of the Gulf Coast (The Gulf of Mexico).
The latter is an album highlight, a topical folk lament disguised as country/Celtic sea chanty that envisions the night the devil "spilled the guts of hell out in the Gulf of Mexico."
Harris, perhaps understandably, confronts gentler demons on Hard Bargain, with the lean electric support of Cage the Elephant/Patty Griffin producer Jay Joyce.
For The Ship on His Arm, Harris creates a lovely waltz backdrop for a romance inspired by the enduring Korean War-era marriage of her parents. For The Road, Harris again summons the inexhaustible spirit of musical mentor Gram Parsons. "It seemed that we were traveling under some ol' lucky sun," Harris sings in the latter with a sagelike voice that regularly cracks and melts into aged sighs.
The heartbreaker, though, is Darlin' Kate, a gentle eulogy to longtime folk friend Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010. "I can't say for sure where you have gone. But in that place, I'm bettin' there's a better song."
"Ghosts sing sad Western songs" reads a credo on the inside sleeve of Earle's album. On these two recordings, that is certainly the case. The melodies are not traditionally Western, and the sadness is often laced with redemption and faith. But the spirits, in all cases, have lots to impart.
It's like that scene in A Christmas Carol when a mortified Scrooge asks a disembodied Marley, "What do you want from me?" Marley's ghost pauses before the stark, inevitable reply. "Much."