As David Rawlings drops the “Machine” suffix on his third record—and eighth collaboration with creative partner Gillian Welch—he finds time to embrace his freakier, lysergic tendencies without leaving the rural paths he’s trod. Rawlings and Welch represent a few musical anomalies: a long-standing collaboration that remains fresh and exhilarating, and a body of work that, despite having passed the 20-year mark, never offers up duds. There are lesser songs in the Welch-Rawlings songbook, but even those hit a far higher standard than many can muster.
The characters that inhabit Poor David’s Almanack feel as familiar as those that populate folk tales. The particulars of their lives may remain mysterious, almost ill-defined, but the emotions they evoke never are. The titular maiden in “Lindsey Button” sounds like a character we first heard about, maybe even sang about, in childhood, but this is track with melancholy and sophistication on full display. As with any number of tunes here and in the larger output Rawlings is involved in, the song seems not so much to have been written but to have slipped into existence aside those by Stephen Foster, Robbie Robertson and Hank Williams.
There is a childlike quality to many of these tunes even if they aren’t songs for children. There’s a delicate innocence in the bouncing, fiddle-soaked “Come on Over My House.” It’s equal parts vow of fidelity and plea for commitment and the thin line it travels only enhances its charms. The simplicity of the lines and the ebullient manner in which Rawlings and friends deliver them becomes a source of deep joy and one that will inspire repeated listens.
Much of the material functions in a similar vein (the gospel-inflected “Good God a Woman,” the infectious “Midnight Train”), though a few take on darker, arguably more sophisticated properties. Rawlings remains enamored with Neil Young’s Harvest/Zuma-era material, going so far as to cover “Cortez the Killer” on 2009’s A Friend of a Friend. “Cumberland Gap” isn’t a retread of “Old Man” or “Ohio,” but it makes no attempts to hide its genetic character. What elevates it? Perhaps Welch’s powerful contributions, perhaps the palpable chemistry they exude through the track’s three-minute running time. Meanwhile, “Guitar Man” could have easily been culled from the golden era of AM radio, but it, too, never feels dated.
Perhaps that’s what’s most remarkable about Poor David’s Almanack and this artist’s greater oeuvre. There’s virtually no sense of the forced, the artificial or a desire to strive for something that’s not in the music’s natural character. Though it’s been said that Welch writes songs that prove starker and sparer, that’s a comparison that differentiates these two by minor degrees. Here, music breathes and floats with a delicacy difficult to replicate let alone achieve in the first place. Somehow Rawlings and Welch have done it, and they show no signs of stopping anytime soon.