It’s easy to view this album as a homecoming of sorts for Emmylou Harris. She is reunited with producer Brian Ahern, who helmed her seminal records from the seventies and early eighties. She’s also accompanied by her most country arrangements since 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer. But while Harris is clearly revisiting her past, she is not reveling in it or even recreating it, as the adventurous spirit of her most recent work is here, and best characterized by the presence of Americana songwriters like Patty Griffin and Harris’ own increasingly ambitious songwriting.
All I Intended to Be finds Emmylou Harris showing her age, in the very best sense. The twin themes of the project are coming to terms with the past and knowing of an increasingly short future, with all of the accompanying issues of regret and nervous anticipation that those issues create. On the album’s best tracks, there’s a combination of both.
Harris penned the album’s strongest song, “Not Enough”, where a woman wrestles with the finality of the death of her loved one. She sings to her departed, “Life is long and life is tough, but when you love someone, life is not long enough.” She also penned the beautifully sad “Gold”, where she admits defeat in a relationship defined by her failure to meet her lover’s expectations: “I finally gave up counting the ways you said I let you down,” she sings, adding that “I could come trailing clouds of glory, but you saw nothing to behold. No matter how bright I glittered, baby, I could never be gold.”
Harris’ own songs are complemented by stellar contributions from top songwriters, the most welcome being the much-needed return of Jude Johnstone, who penned the title cut for Trisha Yearwood’s Hearts in Armor. “Hold On” attempts to empower the downtrodden saddled with regret, while Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have is Your Soul” keeps the focus on salvation, reminding not to bargain away the only thing you’ll be left with in the end.
The album closes with a beautiful rendition of “Beyond the Great Divide”, which doesn’t so much end the album on a spiritual note as close what has been a spiritual journey from the beginning. Harris has always made music for adults, and the message of All I Intended to Be is that it’s never too late to look ahead, even when the long path behind you keeps you looking back.