Gillian Welch is a woman who's deeply and irretrievably in love with the past. She carries a battered old Coleman lantern for it, writes it long and expressive love letters, wears its faded colors and uneven stitching on her sleeve. On her first three albums, Revival, Hell Among the Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), Welch invokes the whiskey stills and dark hickory forests of Appalachia with her deep reedy alto and melancholy ruminations on loneliness ("Orphan Girl"), revenge ("Caleb Meyer") and rebirth ("Winter's Come and Gone"). On Time (The Revelator), Welch muses on history from a rural front porch perspective. Nobody but Welch could so effectively convey the great tragedies of the Lincoln assassination, the sinking of the Titanic and the Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl all in one song without it sounding trite.
On Soul Journey, the past Welch turns to is not Old Man Time but an entity much closer to her own age. In fact, Soul Journey feels like Welch's most autobiographical, most revealing album to date. Her distinctly sonorous vocals are still very much in place, but on songs like "Wayside Back in Time" and "I Made a Lover's Prayer," her lyrics yearn for old suitors and bygone days of "peaches in the summertime, apples on the farm." The familiar framework of the Appalachian spiritual is evident on "I Had a Real Good Mother and Father," but the poignant truth of the song is that as eager as we are to leave the nest, a part of us will remember it with great longing someday.
In addition to the album's more personally nostalgic compositions, Soul Journey also moves between the beautifully minimal compositions created by Welch and longtime collaborator David Rawlings to fleshed-out arrangements with Son Volt bassist Jim Boquist, guitarist Mark Ambrose, Greg Leisz on dobro and Ketch Secor on fiddle. Unlike any previous Welch album, this one occasionally rocks. "Wayside Back in Time," with its sweetly sorrowful organ and fiddle, nevertheless has an infectious, soulful rhythm, and "Wrecking Ball" (no relation to the Emmylou Harris song) is a bittersweet but jubilant meld of organ, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and fiddle. Welch knows how to end an album, and this one, like her others, leaves you feeling as if you'd spent time in the company of ghosts. These ghosts, however, might be as familiar as your own.