Emmylou Harris sings with a steadfast purity that can be starkly beautiful; it can also be coldly distancing. Over the years, her public image has coalesced around the idea of a serene singer-songwriter whose elegance and wisdom is signaled by her silver-gray hair. It takes a lot to get a rise out of Harris, but producer Jay Joyce has succeeded on Hard Bargain. You can hear it in the way he's collaborated with her in a song such as "New Orleans," a rare flood-tide of emotion set to a drum-slamming up-beat — rare for Harris, and welcome.
Harris is in a nostalgic mood in "The Road," a song addressed to Gram Parsons, with whom she made the excellent albums Grievous Angel and Sleepless Nights. Parsons recognized that her surging harmonies worked well in contrast to his baleful croon. For her part, Harris acknowledges in "The Road" that Parsons pushed her to be more daring in every way.
"The Road" is one of two songs on Hard Bargain addressed to a friend who's gone. The other is "Darlin' Kate," a fond farewell to the great singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer last year. Harris' choice of poetic language may verge on the trite — even The Simpsons and Ronald Reagan have appropriated John Gillespie Magee's phrase "slipped the surly bonds of Earth." But it's the ache in Harris' voice that delivers the true emotion.
Hard Bargain is the most eclectic and loose-fitting album Emmylou Harris has made in a long time. She flashes a rare sense of goofy humor in "Big Black Dog," which is about precisely what its title suggests. But there are also weak spots here. Her song about Emmett Till doesn't work as either folk-blues or as social commentary. The plaintive "Lonely Girl" is Harris in a drippy moment. But give her a song as crisp and direct as Ron Sexsmith's title tune, and Harris can still pay off on a musical hard bargain.
At this point in her career, Harris is an inviolate folkie madonna — a small-m madonna, to be sure. She'll always have her devoted core following that values her mannerliness and purity. But an album as lively as Hard Bargain deserves a wider audience; it benefits, I'm guessing, from having been recorded in just one month. It's less fussy, and more invigorating and inviting, than most of what Harris has sung since she first started out with Gram Parsons.