The only time most people have heard the word “revelator” is in the Bible. John the Revelator was the prophet who wrote the Book of Revelation, the final part of the New Testament. As the story goes, John was exiled to a Greek island as persecution for his Christian faith and wrote down his visions of the apocalypse as communicated by Jesus. Filtered through John, who was writing around 95 AD, these visions resemble a dystopian nightmare: the rise of the beast, masquerading as a charismatic ruler, whose mark must be resisted should you desire entry into heaven; the mysterious disappearance of believers during the rapture; and ultimately, after God goes full scorched-earth, a second coming. My father, a follower of John, said that taking in the predictions of Revelation was so intense, it caused him bouts of overwhelming existential dread.
Inspired by Son House’s gospel-blues classic “John the Revelator,” Gillian Welch “picked up the word ‘revelator’ and reapplied” it as the title of her third album. But as the alt-country musician told Billboard upon Time (The Revelator)’s release in July 2001, she was hesitant to over-explain the usage. She did not include the album’s lyrics in the original liner notes, an unconventional move in the CD era but one that held intentional meaning for Welch. “There are a lot of words on this album, but they shouldn’t be read—just heard,” she said. “The meaning has to do with the way they sound.”
You could say Welch was working in an oratory tradition, pulling from folk music and Biblical storytelling by tying up the message with its divine expression. But there was also the rare nature of her collaboration with longtime musical and romantic partner David Rawlings. Welch’s father once likened the couple’s locked-in concentration to “breathing together,” and Welch herself, in the same New Yorker profile, said that she loses track of which voice is hers and which is Rawlings’. On the chorus of Time’s opener, “Revelator,” his voice lags behind hers at such a close interval that it creates an eerie echo, the first but not the last time this occurs on the album. The interplay between their acoustic guitars is so lively and seamless on the “Revelator” solo that it actually makes me angry to remember that record-industry execs once tried to get Welch to perform with other guitarists.
Billed under just Welch’s name but very much a duo, Welch and Rawlings have worked almost exclusively with one another since meeting at Berklee School of Music in the early ’90s. (She was the Cali-raised adopted daughter of professional entertainers; he was a Rhode Island boy favoring cheap, gross, extremely old guitars; they were stuck at a jazz school.) On their first two albums, 1996’s Revival and 1998’s Hell Among the Yearlings, both produced by Americana kingmaker T Bone Burnett, Welch sang lead on country story-songs about miners and orphans, determined little mountain flowers, and the ghost of a rapist who haunts his poor wife (who killed him, of course). Shortly before making Time, Welch covered a duo of traditional songs alongside alt-country heroines like Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris for the wildly successful soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a roots-music anointment sealed with Welch’s cameo in the Coen brothers’ film. Around the same time, her record deal with Almo Sounds dissolved, which led to the founding of the duo’s own Acony Records, their label to this day.
When Welch and Rawlings went into Nashville’s RCA Studio B to record Time (The Revelator) at the dawn of the new millennium, they were unwittingly working in a studio that had been the site of more than 200 Elvis Presley recordings. The lore fits the music: Here, they present intertwined tales of Elvis and Black folk hero John Henry, the Titanic’s sinking and Lincoln’s assassination, farm girls and surfer chicks, and how hard it was getting to make a living as a musician. Sometimes the two are foils, but largely Rawlings serves as the punctuation to Welch’s slightly crooked cataloging of country life. The duo would explore a full-band sound on their next LP, 2003’s Soul Journey, but within the sparse Revelator lives an entire band. Welch has likened it to a rock album without the amplification, which is apparent in all sorts of ways—namely, structures that work like rock songs, with big choruses and melodic dissonance, tension and release, lengths that run ragged like Neil Young and reference God, history, and culture like Dylan. You can hear where there should be more instruments, a place where you might stomp or slap your thigh to a rhythm that’s played instead by Rawlings’ strumming, and that’s part of the fun of these skeletal epics.
“My First Lover” makes a compelling case for such stripped-down arrangements for such evocative songs. A good story helps too, but it’s the stunning ambivalence with which Welch lingers on the details that make it an unforgettable tune about the loss of virginity. He was a tall, long-haired surfer boy who negged her, but she “was not waiting for a white wedding gown.” She can’t even remember why they broke up, just that a Steve Miller song was playing when it happened. Sometimes these supposedly important figures in a person’s life are completely incidental. But the tale has an ominous side, echoed in the haze of booze-soaked memories and a creeping tension between Welch’s voice and Rawlings’ banjo. The repeated phrase “quicksilver girl” hits like a warning, the way she prolongs the dissonant note on “girl” and eventually finishes her thought: “and she’s free.”
Quicksilver is liquid mercury, capable of abrupt change; it’s a surfing thing, too, a word for someone who moves fast. Welch borrowed the lines from the 1968 Steve Miller Band song “Quicksilver Girl,” which, sung from the perspective of a man, takes on either an air of wonder or a hint of judgment about the woman in question. I prefer Welch’s usage. In rock, women lyricists have cataloged the cornflake girls and rebel girls, the sisters of the moon, those made of doll parts and other viscera. (Welch herself had already contributed “Whiskey Girl” and “Barroom Girls” to the pile, and “Red Clay Halo” here is one for the girls with mud under their fingernails.) But there’s something so coolly aspirational about the quicksilver girl who slips off with no trace, ready to make her way in the world without any constraints, not even a lover (forget a boyfriend). Arriving second on an album where the central theme is the pursuit of freedom, “My First Lover” hits like the start of that awakening.
The flip side of that independence is a yearning for something that only time can reveal. “Dear Someone” feels like it picks up on that same quicksilver girl once again. “I want to go all over the world and start living free,” Welch sings, knowing that this doesn’t preclude her from wanting one true love. The song is slow-moving in pace but impatient in sentiment, beautiful and bittersweet in its melody. It sounds how searching for your person can feel.
At the heart of Time is a four-song suite that speaks to American history and rock’n’roll in a lucid, novelistic way that’s more comparable to Greil Marcus than contemporary guitar music. “April the 14th Part 1” uses the date of three tragedies—the murder of Lincoln, the Titanic hitting the iceberg, and the Black Sunday dust storm of 1935—as the occasion for a portrait of the struggling punks who once played the late show after Welch and Rawlings in a Eugene, Oregon club. It’s a semi-tragic slice of life set in whichever small rock club holds a place in your heart, wherein Welch observes the group’s squalor and still thinks, “I wish I played in a rock and roll band.” If you understand the appeal of this lifestyle as well as the inherent griminess, there’s a mix of desperation and dark romance summed up in the writing: “And the girl passed out/In the backseat trash/And there was no way they’d make/Even a half a tank of gas.”
A country-gospel original equating electric guitars with holy salvation, “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll” is the fantasy of “I wish I played in a rock’n’roll band” come joyfully to life. The live performance is pulled from a set at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium as part of Down From the Mountain, the concert film commemorating the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Repurposing a live track vaguely associated with one of the biggest films of the previous year is a challenge, but thematically and musically, it serves the album. After Rawlings plays a plucky solo, the crowd cheers like it’s the Opry equivalent of a touchdown.
After these dreams of deliverance, Welch and Rawlings offer up a cautionary tale in “Elvis Presley Blues.” As with the down-and-out band from Idaho in “April the 14th Part 1,” Welch humanizes Elvis through simple observations—“Just a country boy that combed his hair/And put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air/And he shook it like a chorus girl,” goes the first verse—contrasted against the icon’s later decline and the life of John Henry. Elvis lived in glory and died in tragedy, but Henry arguably suffered the opposite fate: He was freed from slavery in the late 19th century and took on mythic status as a strong-man steel-driver working on railroad tunnels, until his heart gave out after he bested a steam hammer—real man vs. machine shit. His story inspired two different styles of folk and blues songs—“The Ballad of John Henry” story-songs and “hammer” work songs. (Johnny Cash has an extensive song, “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer,” that combines elements of both forms.) The melody here borrows from the traditional song “John Henry,” but Rawlings’ fingerpicking is light and nimble, and their subtle harmonizing on the chorus gives a sad song a hopeful tinge.
Welch picks up the Lincoln/Titanic/Black Sunday thread on “Ruination Day Part 2,” an incantation wrapped in a blues groove. She croons about Old Abe taking a bullet to the back of the head, but perhaps more curiously she sings of Casey Jones, the train engineer who died in a high-speed collision in 1900. Like John Henry, Jones was immortalized in many blues, folk, and country songs, often in ballad form, but Welch merely gestures to his story in describing the iceberg coming at the Titanic: “God moves on the water, Casey Jones.” When she repeats his last name, Welch once again draws out the dissonant notes slowly, building an intoxicating melody around a single syllable.
While the duo lingers plenty in the history books, the song that became a standard in and of itself, “Everything Is Free,” is a premonition of streaming culture and the internet’s devaluation of art writ large. Phoebe Bridgers, in her deadpan way, once called it her “favorite song ever written about Napster,” before performing the tune alongside Julien Baker; Courtney Barnett also has a wonderful version often played live; Father John Misty took the piss by covering the song for the Spotify Singles series. By 2001, Metallica had already taken Napster to court, and file-sharing was spurring tremendous change within the music industry. But no one had humanized the situation for middle-class musicians quite like Welch on “Everything Is Free.” What happens when your art suddenly has negligible commercial value, and your only way of making a living off it involves the indignities of touring? Welch embodies a Gen-X idea about the whole thing—“I can get a straight job, I done it before”—before clarifying, “Never minded working hard/It’s who I’m working for.”
Few suspected then that something like Spotify would arrive less than a decade later and take advantage of the situation created by Napster, offering artists fractions of cents per stream and further entrenching touring as the industry’s primary moneymaker. “Everything Is Free” never tries to be a manual of how to operate as a creative person in this corrupt world, but there is power in Welch leading the way by quietly refusing: By recognizing that the music in her head doesn’t need an audience to be real. By staying home and singing the songs anyway. And by making the tune so pleasing to the ear, like an afternoon dream described through Rawlings’ fingertips, with just a hint of melancholy around the edges.
The expanse of something lies ahead. At nearly 15 minutes long, the final song, “I Dream a Highway,” encompasses what came before it and points toward a direction home. “It just happened that all these lyrics I was writing belonged in that song,” Welch once said. “I tried to edit things out but it didn’t make it better. In fact, it was the opposite; I realized that everything this record was about was in that song.” She doubles back to John Henry’s hammer and the stragglers and the jags at the Eugene rock club. She references Johnny Cash kicking out the footlights at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965 and flirts with trading Nashville for Memphis in search of the real thing. She mentions the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus in the Gospel of John, whose author, John the Apostle, was once mistakenly believed to be the same John who wrote the Book of Revelation. Time collapses while Gillian and Dave play on.
The most striking characters mentioned in “I Dream a Highway” are Emmylou Harris and Grams Parsons. Critical readings of the song often position Harris as the narrator, and the ghost she’s singing to as Parsons, her partner in forging country music’s cosmic path, before his tragic death in 1973 at just 26. Whether you hear it that way or as I do—with the imagined figure from “Dear Someone” also appearing at the end of this highway—the loaded phrases and scene sketches amount to something like commentary on breaking tradition, one of Revelator’s biggest themes. Welch and Rawlings had never played the song when they recorded it, and Rawlings spliced together the first two performances with a beginning and end in mind. Some of his most gorgeously ambling guitar work appears between the verses, like the way detours hit us in between the stanzas of life.
Just last week, someone sent me a tweet from the band Low. They were answering a fan question about a line in their 2002 song “Candy Girl,” “We wasted all our days/With Gillian and Dave,” confirming that it couldn’t be any other Gillian and Dave. “We are big fans. Many hours passed in the kitchen, listening to Time the Revelator [sic].” And while the album received no shortage of critical praise upon release, particularly within the Americana community, there is an under-explored connection between Revelator and the kind of slowcore played by Low, or the hushed folk-rock of Bridgers’ Stranger in the Alps, Adrianne Lenker’s finger-picked fantasias, or Lana Del Rey’s darkly romantic poetry on American myths. Even just a certain attitude in indie rock. “...Everything on that record has this crazy, fierce core of independence and being threatened and feeling alone,” Welch reflected five years ago. “I think it’s what gives it its reverberence today. It seems to resound with adults who are just dealing with their own true independence, certainly young musicians who are trying.” Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings saw the future in the past, and made an album for all time.
Editor’s Note: The Sunday Review series is intended to cover albums not included in our archives. This album was previously reviewed on Pitchfork in 2001. Due to an oversight, it’s been revisited here with a new essay.
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