As much as I love Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball — you really didn’t want to be hanging around me in 1995 if I were anywhere near a CD player — two additional albums in the same vein started to feel … familiar. And Harris isn’t one to dwell on the familiar for very long.
To bastardize Sir Isaac Newton, every zig has an equal and opposite zag. With All I Intended to Be, Harris returns to her role as interpreter, and she works with her very first producer, Brian Ahrens, for the first time in two decades. It’s not a complete return to the past, however — a few of her own songs are thrown into the mix.
What results is a wonderfully organic and rustic work, a culmination of Harris’ storied career as performer and songwriter.
Harris calls herself a "finder of songs", and no less than Pitchfork claims Harris doesn’t really record a bad album — just different levels of good. For listeners familiar with her work, All I Intended to Be can easily rank with Bluebird and the Trio album with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. It may even keep good company with Pieces of the Sky and Wrecking Ball.
All those albums exhibit Harris’ incredibly keen ear and sharp taste. So too with this album. Harris strings together these songs so tightly, they feel like the work of a single writer, even though they make a diverse set.
"Broken Man’s Lament" and "How She Could Sing the Wildwood Flower" feel far more rural than the more contemporary "Shores of White Sands" and "Hold On". The presence of Kate and Anne McCarrigle on Patty Griffin’s "Moon Song" make it sound more like their own, while Harris’ "Gold" feels more like a Griffin song. Tracy Chapman’s "All That You Have Is Your Soul" and Merle Haggard’s "Kern River" both dip deep into a well of poignancy, but it’s easy to tell the more recent from the older.
Harris’ most recent albums, 2003’s Stumble Into Grace and 2000’s Red Dirt Girl, focused almost exclusively on her own songs, something she hadn’t done since 1985’s The Ballad of Sally Rose. All I Intended to Be puts her writing in context of other — dare I say, more experienced? — writers, and her songs hold their own. If anything, they’re some of the best on the album.
"Take that Ride" has a gilded grit that could smooth out the rough edges of Lucinda Williams, while "Not Enough" can really tug some strings. "Life is long and life is tough," Harris sings, "but when you love someone, life’s not long enough."
Ahrens’ production pretty much stays out of Harris’ way — just a lot of harmony and a very light touch to the arrangements. In short, nothing that would ever be played on country radio (which is pretty much watered-down ’80s hair metal anyway, thank you Mutt Lange and Shania Twain.)
The ethereal touch of Malcolm Burns and Daniel Lanois is nowhere to be found, and really, it’s nice to hear Harris get out of the clouds and back down to earth.
No title could be more appropriate for this album than All I Intended to Be. Harris summarizes her career, at the same time positioning it for the future. Her reputation as an interpreter brooks no argument, and her bona fides as a songwriter get stronger. If she records more albums like this one, she’ll be producing great music for many years to come.