A creative renaissance for a daring songwriter.
In 2013 Patty Griffin showed just how far she's come in her career, so her 2014 tour, which stops at the High Noon Saloon on Jan. 29, should be full of amazing performances. Last May the singer-songwriter released American Kid, her first album of all-new material since 2007's Children Running Through. Then October brought Silver Bell, an album recorded in 2000 but never officially released by A&M Records. Taken together, these records gave listeners a unique opportunity to ponder an artist's past and present at the same time.
Silver Bell is a wildly diverse collection of songs that bears little resemblance to the work Griffin creates today. "Boston" is an all-out rock 'n' roll song; "Little God" features an ominous electric-guitar riff; and "Perfect White Girls," with Griffin's sensual vocals and warped keys and bass, sounds like something out of the Portishead songbook. "Mother of God" and "One More Girl" hint at Griffin's folk and country influences, but overall, she seems interested in exploring newer sounds and gravitating toward observational rather than autobiographical content.
American Kid, on the other hand, is a calmer, more self-assured record. Content to stay within the lines of country, folk and Americana, the album has none of Silver Bell's bombast and feels more introspective. Griffin says the album was a tribute to her father, and tracks like "Mom & Dad's Waltz" and "Irish Boy" back up that claim. Griffin's voice is thinner now; for instance, she doesn't hit the high notes on "Go Wherever You Wanna Go" as easily as she did earlier in her career. But she's vivacious, as though this reflection on her family's past is a validation of the life she herself has lived.
These stark differences reflect Griffin's evolution as an artist. Those who've followed her career know she likes to throw curveballs. Her 1996 debut, Living with Ghosts, was a collection of raw, acoustic demos that showcased her impassioned, personal songwriting and introduced us to a singer in the vein of Bonnie Raitt. Her 1998 follow-up, Flaming Red, however, featured heavy doses of rock ("Flaming Red," "Wiggley Fingers"), blasts of distortion-heavy alternative rock ("Blue Sky") and pop-rock numbers like "One Big Love," in which she channeled both Sheryl Crow and Jill Sobule. Flaming Red was the very definition of a musical one-eighty.
Then Griffin surprised fans again by making them wait almost four years for her next record, 2002's 1000 Kisses. This album was a return to her more intimate, acoustic sensibilities. Three covers made the cut for this record, including a hair-raising take on Bruce Springsteen's "Stolen Car." And it's hard not to be moved by "Rain," with its echoing acoustic sound augmented by delicate keys, sweeping strings and one of Griffin's most soulful performances. But the fun was only just beginning.
Impossible Dream, released in 2004, introduced listeners to the tinges of blues creeping into Griffin's repertoire, and on 2007's Children Running Through, she went full-bore into new territory. In addition to exploring folk, Children features elements of jazz ("You'll Remember"), rockabilly ("Stay on the Ride") and gospel-style soul ("Heavenly Day"). On 2010's Downtown Church, Griffin went full-on gospel, covering classic songs like "All Creatures of Our God and King," "Virgen de Guadalupe" and "If I Had My Way." The album also includes appearances by Mike Farris, Buddy Miller and longtime collaborator Emmylou Harris.
American Kid and Silver Bell simultaneously demonstrated why Griffin is among the most notable singer-songwriters of her generation. She observes the complexities of life in rich detail, drawing from a deep well of emotion. Yet she makes such personal thoughts and tales relatable to others as well. It seems Griffin's having a creative renaissance, and one can only hope there is more to come.