If Red Dirt Girl -- Emmylou Harris's somber and atmospheric album from three years ago -- felt a bit like a walk through the Valley of the Shadow, Stumble Into Grace is more of a sunlit car trip to the Promised Land. With a lusher, more polished sound and less of the discordant reverberations of Wrecking Ball, Spyboy and Red Dirt Girl, this is Harris at her most elegantly accessible.
While she can interpret old standards like "If I Could Only Win Your Love" and "Angel Band," she is just as unforgettable when delivering her own songs. Even while singing of heartbreak and unrequited passions, she maintains an oddly comforting distance -- perhaps as if knowing the grungy skirmishes and genuine heartache we experience here on Earth will someday be washed away and kissed better. Even "Lost Unto This World," with its hair-raising images of violence and loss, plays out like a bittersweet and hypnotic lullaby.
It would be easier for Harris to churn out something similar to her last few albums, but here she experiments with world music rhythms -- for instance, the ethereal South American churanga and drums on "Little Bird," and the mysteriously hushed drumbeats of "O Evangeline." And while Harris is joined by Gillian Welch, Jane Siberry and Linda Ronstadt on several tracks, it is Kate and Anna McGarrigle that add the most haunting resonance in their back-up vocals to "Plaisir d'Amour," "O Evangeline," "I Will Dream" and "Little Bird." The only real misstep on this rich, slowly unfolding album is "Can You Hear Me Now," which has lovely lyrics but is marred by its over-used, overly recognized title/tagline.
Stumble Into Grace is full of pleasures that reveal themselves over consecutive listenings, but one eerily timed track stands out immediately from the rest. "Strong Hand," dedicated to June Carter Cash, is a deeply affecting hymn of remembrance and a celebration of the enduring love between two country music legends. "He was a tall man, raised up from the fields of cotton," is the kind of lyric that sounds like the opening line to an American folk tale, and indeed, Johnny Cash was both an ordinary man and a cultural icon. Harris, as a close family friend, strikes the perfect note of familiarity and honor.