It’s just great to know that Joan Baez is still out there falling in love with good songs, singing them to her fans, and putting them on record. She’s been doing that since the year I started kindergarten in 1960, and her music has always been part of the zeitgeist. She’s been criticized by the purists for being a bit too homogeneous in her approach to a song, but there’s no denying her ability to spot a great song and a great writer.
It’s been 10 years since her last album of new material, 2008’s Day After Tomorrow. Now she’s releasing another solid collection of songs by some of the top singer-songwriters of the current moment. She’ll be touring behind this one for what she says will be her last tour, and in all likelihood Whistle Down the Wind will be her last studio album. It was produced by Joe Henry, one of the best and most honored producers around these days, the way he likes to produce – fairly quickly and with a spacious, open and natural sound. They laid these 10 tracks down in just 10 days.
Baez has shown an affinity of late for the songs of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, titling both this one and the previous one after songs by that astounding duo. “Whistle Down The Wind” is a perfect title track and opening track of this album. An arresting reading of this song of mortality off of 1992’s Bone Machine, it sets the stage, the Marleybone stage if you will, for an album of songs that looks unflinchingly in the face of mortality and loss.
Waits and Brennan have two numbers in this collection, both looking at mortality from different angles. Where “Whistle” is sardonic, “Last Leaf” (from 2011’s Bad As Me) takes a more humorous approach. The titular last leaf on the tree boasts grandly of its longevity, having outlasted even Eisenhower and being destined to live on in a song. Baez captures just the right tone on both, her weathered vocal cords conveying the weariness of “Whistle” and the wit of “Leaf.”
Also getting two songs in this album is Josh Ritter. Both of them, “Be of Good Heart” and “Silver Blade,” are unreleased by him although he has played them in concert since 2017. “Silver Blade” is an engaging western-style ballad that reveals some influence of the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, with whom Ritter has toured and recorded in recent years. It’s a fine song. As for the other, I’ll just say that Henry’s production is capable of making even a song that doesn’t personally speak to me a beautiful song. The clean guitar and mandolin lines, loping tom-tom heartbeats and subtle organ fills make this one a pleasure to listen to.
That production really shines through on “Another World” by Anohni. It’s one more song about facing mortality, a dramatic gem by one of today’s premier musical artists – as a songwriter and a singer. The bare-bones setting – just thudding tom-tom and guitar that is alternately plucked lightly and abruptly hammered – it deftly mixes the themes of individual extinction and the waning of our planet’s life. Baez said in an interview with Rolling Stone that it best sums up the album and the way she’s feeling these days.
The role call of moving contemporary folk songs continues: Joe Henry’s “Civil War,” a stately waltz that tells the sad tale of the end of a love affair; Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “The Things That We Are Made Of ,” a ballad of dislocation and endings. It wouldn’t be a Joan Baez album without some topical “protest”-type songs, and she’s chosen “The Great Correction” by one of the best, Eliza Gilkyson. And the short, bittersweet broadsheet about a recent mass shooting, “The President Sang Amazing Grace” by the relatively unknown Zoe Mulford. And she wraps it up with one of her juniors who takes folk songs as seriously as she does, Tim Eriksen’s treatment of an ancient ballad, “I Wish The Wars Were All Over.” The old song of a girl who just wants her boy to come home is a telling choice by Baez, whose stance against war has always been from just such a personal angle. She’s never sung of war or other injustices as abstract things, but as implements of personal harm and oppression.
With Whistle Down the Wind Joan Baez proves she still deserves her standing as one of the voices of her generation. I’m glad she’s not quite ready to step off the stage just yet.