BY STEVE PICK
“You can go wherever you want to go,” Patty Griffin announces in her clear, soaring voice at the beginning of American Kid, her first album of original material in six years. It’s hard to tell from the tone of this song whether she’s being encouraging or foreboding. Perhaps it’s the ghostly images of 19th century soldiers dotting the lyrics booklet, or perhaps it’s just the mournful sound of Luther Dickinson’s slide guitar commenting on Griffin’s warm, descriptive singing. Given also that ghosts turn up as images in at least two more songs on the record, this celebration of freedom sounds often as though it requires death to get there. Or is there another way to interpret this verse: “You can get up on some sunny day and run / Run a hundred miles just for fun now / Heartaches and yesterdays don’t weigh a ton now.”?
As a songwriter, Griffin has rarely been one to simply lay all the cards on the table. She is best at presenting evocative images, intriguing characters, complex situations open to multiple readings and reactions. Her most famous song, “Top of the World,” (a huge hit for the Dixie Chicks back when the Chicks used to have huge hits) takes as its subject the very reticence to say things directly which energizes so many of her songs. Of course, Griffin is more emotionally honest with us than the narrator of that impossibly sad lyric ever was in life.
American Kid teams Griffin up with producer/guitarist/keyboardist Craig Ross, who she last worked with on 2004’s Impossible Dream. He wisely brings in Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars to add guitar and percussion respectively, as well as some less heralded but equally valuable musicians, especially one Doug Lancio on mandolin and guitar. Robert Plant, who may or may not be Griffin’s husband these days, turns up to add some highly effective backing and harmony vocals, too.
Griffin drops us again and again into situations where we are given just enough information to get our emotional bearings. We can side with the WWII vet who doesn’t want to end his days where they began in the vigorous “Please Don’t Let Me Die in Florida.” “Ohio,” sung beautifully in close harmony with Plant, fits all the rules of ancient balladry, with its nature images, the longed-for reunion of two lovers, and the unfulfilled ending. “Faithful Son” returns to the same well as “Top of the World,” looking at the life of a man who has done all that seemed to be asked of him, only tearing us apart as we realize nobody was actually asking. “Not a Bad Man” lets Griffin sing directly to us over a sparse backdrop of acoustic guitar, piano, and baritone guitar riffs, the equivalent of a Hollywood close-up as her narrator describes the harrowing effects of seeing too much too soon.
Griffin covers Lefty Frizzell’s sentimental chestnut “Mom & Dad’s Waltz,” making us feel every bit of family fealty the song contains. Really, the way she breaks the syllables of the word “daddy” is enough to make one weep with sympathy. “Get Ready Marie” is the other good time song, in the pop styles of 1904, or whenever “After the Ball” might have been written. This one tells the tale of a drunken wedding and some mighty pleasurable nights thereafter.
With no false moves, American Kid tells tales of connections wrapped around separations, of hopes buried with regrets, of ghosts influencing lives. Griffin’s melodies are gorgeous, her phrasing elastic, supple, and perfectly expressive of the words, and the sound of her voice is purely captivating. Her previous album, 2010’s collection of traditional Gospel songs Downtown Church, had seemed a difficult act to follow. But Patty Griffin has clearly been saving the best of her own material for a long time, making this perhaps her finest hour.
DOWNLOAD: “Go Wherever You Wanna Go,” “Faithful Son,” “Wild Old Dog,” “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone”