It takes more than strong lyrics and a couple of catchy tunes to make a bluegrass album extraordinary. It takes a lot of heart, plus an emotional connection that transcends mere love of the bluegrass genre itself; in short, it takes someone like the exquisitely talented Donna Ulisse and her supremely-chosen cast of players, who pour everything in their souls into the new record Time for Love, an LP which debuted earlier this month. In Time for Love’s thirteen songs, which include tracks like the poignant “Heart of Rosine,” “Come to Jesus Moment,” staggering “Get on Home Boy,” “I’m Not Afraid” and the confessional “I’ll Never Find Another You,” Ulisse doesn’t just make a carbon copy of some old bluegrass yarns of yore and attach it to a volatile rhythm concept; rather than doing something silly like that, she breaks away from the mainstream and incorporates elements of country and folk into her storytelling. She’s an original breed of troubadour in this album, and if you’d thought you had heard the most fascinating of her discography before this moment, you would do well to strap yourself in tightly for this forthcoming thrill ride.
The string melodies in “When I Go All Bluegrass on You,” “When We’ve Got Time for Love,” “Red Top Mountain Road” and “A Little Less Gone” are able to convey a narrative that linguistics alone never possibly could, and because of the stellar mastering of the entire tracklist from beginning to end, we’re never robbed of any tonality in exchange for some kind of radio-ready look. Ulisse tells us tales from her own heart in this LP, but she doesn’t limit her poetic emissions to self-aware subject matter alone. In some ways, she’s telling us the story of bluegrass as we move from songs like the first half’s “My Whole World is Standing Still” and “Seven Lonely Days” into the second act’s “Hi Lonesome” and “Magazine Rack,” with the strings texturizing a mood in the lyrics that lends a lot of agency to the familiar tone of the music as a complete piece. It’s complicated and yet really seamless here, and those aren’t two things I can say about most of the bluegrass albums I review.
Endearing, surreal and constantly full of surprises around every corner, Time for Love is a knockout LP not to be missed by any bluegrass fans, young and old, around the country this season. In addition to being a really efficient listen free of the usual fluff and nonsensical experimentalism usually counterproductive to the essence of an artist’s personal style, Time for Love just feels like a breakthrough moment in this stage of Donna Ulisse’s career unlike any other she’s released in the 2010’s. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to see her live in the near future, but whether she gets back to the studio before she hits the road or not, I think she’d be smart to stay clear of making any drastic changes to her current sound. She’s struck gold in her last couple of ventures, and after this latest hit, I wouldn’t suggest that she go messin’ with a proven success at all.