Over the latter half of a career that has spanned four decades, Emmylou Harris has gravitated toward spare, acoustic ballads that highlight the ethereal qualities of her distinctive voice. Though that style has resulted in some exceptional work, including 2008's All I Intended to Be, it's also made her output somewhat predictable. Her latest, Hard Bargain, stands as a pleasant surprise, then, because it regularly kicks up the tempo and gives Harris ample opportunities to prove that she can still belt and growl with the best of them.
Singing on "New Orleans" of the city's ongoing efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, Harris sounds as fired up as she has since 1995's landmark Wrecking Ball, and it's refreshing to hear her push her usually pristine, gossamer voice in a more frayed, urgent direction. The blues-inflected "Six White Cadillacs" is even better, with Harris's languid phrasing and the arrangement's subtle swamp funk recalling Cowgirl's Prayer's "Thanks to You," one of her all-time best singles. Lead single "The Road" is more straightforward in its AAA-ready rock, but producer Jay Joyce leaves ample grit in the guitar riffs and echoes in the vocal tracks to give the song texture. It's a smart production choice, in that the song's progressive country-rock structure is well-matched to its tribute to Harris's mentor, Gram Parsons.
Because Hard Bargain contains enough uptempo material for contrast, the album's ballads don't blur together as they have on some of Harris's recent records, which makes it easier to appreciate them on their own merits. "Lonely Girl" is a stunning mood piece, while "Dear Kate" pays homage to the late Kate McGarrigle, Harris's longtime friend and collaborator. Though she's always been known first and foremost as a song interpreter, Harris's songwriting here is especially sharp. The gently rollicking "Home Sweet Home" boasts an unconventional melody that heightens the song's overall sense of displacement, while the ballad "My Name is Emmett Till" finds Harris singing from the point of view of the young African American boy killed for violating the unspoken laws of the Jim Crow-era South. It's the empathy in Harris's writing and her intuitive, sensitive phrasing that keep the song from becoming maudlin or cloying.
Harris's cover of Ron Sexsmith's "Hard Bargain" is another standout, proving that her ear for exceptional material remains undiminished. Hard Bargain may lack the thematic heft of its predecessor, but her choices of cover tunes (Joyce's "Cross Yourself" closes the album) and her spot-on original tunes make that a relatively minor complaint. Though her voice has begun to show some signs of wear, Harris remains one of popular music's most compelling, evocative vocal stylists, and that makes Hard Bargain an easy sell.