Emmylou Harris Stumble Into Grace

After 2000’s stunning Red Dirt Girl (her first album of all-original material in over a decade), Harris continues her creative roll here with another 11 largely self-penned tracks. Like that album, Stumble Into Grace is much more a reflection of the breakthrough she achieved with Daniel Lanois on 1995’s Wrecking Ball than any of her previous, steeped-in-tradition work. The textures are subtle and gorgeous, somehow managing to capture the sound of a small room and a wide open space at the same time. It’s an atmosphere perfectly conducive to the ethereal qualities of Harris’s voice, and while here it may not pack the same punch as it does when she’s belting out an old Louvin Brothers song, she now seems completely comfortable as an interpreter of her own lyrics. As a writer, she’s exploring darker themes as well; "Can You Here Me Now” is tinged with late-night desperation, and "Time In Babylon” (co-written with Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff) contains dark commentary on current social trends. There’s also a tribute to June Carter Cash, "Strong Hand,” most moving due in its celebration of her spirit, rather than mourning her loss. And while musically there isn’t much change from Red Dirt Girl’s simple structures, the biggest difference is the presence of Kate & Anna McGarrigle, who refreshingly infuse their trademark Acadian style onto several tracks. But despite the darker themes, Stumble Into Grace remains an album you can slip into like an old, warm sweater, like all of Harris’s recent work. After two decades of preserving traditional folk and country music, she is now thoroughly contemporary, and all the better because of it. (Nonesuch)