With 1995’s Wrecking Ball, her first collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris made a deliberate break from a brand of country music that had always struck a balance between her mastery of traditional forms and a more progressive style. The three studio albums she recorded during that period allowed Harris to recapture both her artistic and commercial relevance, and records like Red Dirt Girl and her most recent album, 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, are of the same stellar quality as albums like Elite Hotel and Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town from her first artistic peak. But Harris has never been predictable, and for her new album, All I Intended to Be, she reunites with Brian Ahern, producer of many of her classic country albums, and has come up with a record that combines many of the best aspects of both her classic and recent output.
Harris has built her reputation on being one of popular music’s finest interpretive singers, but her last few albums have found her further developing her skills as a songwriter. Here, she’s chosen some exemplary cuts by Patty Griffin, Tracy Chapman, Mark Germino, Merle Haggard and Billy Joe Shaver that speak to traditional folk and country conventions, in addition to writing (or co-writing with Kate and Anna McGarrigle) several original compositions that hold up alongside the works of such master songwriters. Because these songs are more traditional than much of Harris’s recent work, Ahern wisely takes a minimalist approach to their production, using predominantly acoustic arrangements with only the occasional flourish of the ethereal, otherworldly effects that characterized Stumble Into Grace and Wrecking Ball.
As is the case with all of Harris’s albums, though, it’s her incomparable voice that makes her music so compelling. Though she’s lost just a touch of her power as she passed her 60th birthday (a few of the cracks in her voice on “Sailing Round the Room” and “Take That Ride” don’t sound intentional), Harris’s sense of phrasing remains peerless. She’s able to bring more fully-realized melancholy to a single line of Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” than any of country’s current A-list “vocalists” have managed over the course of their entire careers, and she sings from the first-person perspective of a man on Germino’s standout “Broken Man’s Lament” without drawing attention to what a lesser singer might reduce to a stunt performance. Instead, the song and Harris’s performance bleed. Dolly Parton provides a lovely harmony turn on “Gold,” and Vince Gill and Buddy Miller also contribute vocals that match Harris’s restraint and understatement. From her choices of collaborators and material to her extraordinary singing, Intended proves that Harris’s greatest gift is her dead-on instincts.