It’s easy for Patty Griffin fans to be apprehensive about a new album. It was 17 years ago this month that she released her breathtaking debut Living With Ghosts, a nearly perfect collection of 10 tracks featuring mainly Griffin and her acoustic guitar. The songs and stories were raw and beautiful and illustrated her almost unparalleled skills as a singer and songwriter. It was almost an accident the album worked so well – the songs were written to be played with a band, and played loud; stripping them down to their bare essentials made all the difference (even though it wasn’t her choice). Nevertheless, Griffin added a band and rocked out on her second album, Flaming Red, which, while still a great album, was overproduced and had fans scratching their heads and asking what happened to the simplicity of her debut. Her third album, Silver Bell, was never officially released as her label, A&M Records, merged with Interscope and dropped her from the label. (Several songs turned up on later albums, and in the entire album is available for download on several fan sites.)
All of this, of course, confused casual fans who wondered what kind of songwriter Griffin was. Her next three albums all showed flashes of brilliance (particularly 2004’s Impossible Dream) but were uneven. 2010’s Downtown Church was easy to listen to because of Griffin’s instrumentation and vocals but was, at the end of the day, an album of gospel covers; Griffin’s interpretations of other material often feel vastly inferior to her original songs. Griffin then joined (and, according to some media reports, married) Robert Plant, touring with Band of Joy for a while, leading some to wonder if her solo career was over.
Which brings us to American Kid, her first album of original material in six years, and the best since her debut. Her time with Band of Joy has paid massive dividends, as the perfectly sculpted soundscapes she creates – with help from Band of Joy openers North Mississippi Allstars, and background vocals by Plant himself – easily pull on the ears and emotions as much as anything she’s done.
American Kid is a concept album of sorts; most of the songs are about or from the perspective of her late father, a high school teacher and World War II veteran. (She does well singing about her family; “Burgundy Shoes,” a song about a bus trip with her mother, is one of the most achingly beautiful songs she’s recorded.) But at no point does the album fall into pining elegy; instead it rises and falls, as a man’s life does, with music perfectly suited to Griffin’s poignant-but-not-treacly lyrics.
There are many standout tracks. On “Ohio” Griffin and Plant harmonize the voices of two runaway slaves perfectly over a pulsing beat and numerous acoustic instruments. On “Irish Boy” Griffin and her piano beautifully spin the tale of her father’s youth from his perspective; “there are some things that must remain secrets,” she ominously whispers, adding “I never had dreams and they never came true.” “Get Ready Marie” switches gears entirely to a bawdy waltz as Griffin once again embodies her father singing drunkenly about his impending marriage. “My pretty young bride wasn’t laughing while I tripped and fell down the aisle,” she croons. “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida” is an angry song about growing old in the Sunshine State, which Griffin clearly views as cruel and unusual punishment – she explores the same territory in back-to-back songs from 2004’s Impossible Dream, “Florida” and “Mother of God,” in which she sings “When I was 18 I moved to Florida, like everyone sick of the cold does / and I waited on old people waiting to die…I waited on them until I was.”
It’s misleading to call American Kid a “return to form” – stylistically, it’s not that much different from Griffin’s previous material. But unlike some previous efforts she hits the nail on the head every time. Numerous listens reveal new musical and lyrical details, and not once does she allow you to pull your attention away. While it’s sad that it took her father’s passing to inspire such a work of beauty, she has honored him extremely well.