We all ache at our own frequency. Maybe it’s the suffering Buddhism talks about. Maybe it’s Christianity’s Original Sin. Maybe it’s simply the pain of being on a lone planet in an ever-expanding universe. Whatever you want to call it, the important fact is that it’s there at the edge of all our moments of bliss and contentedness.
But this human ache is part of what makes our species beautiful. Enter Patty Griffin and her voice that knows the precise timbre of human pain. On her seventh studio album, American Kid, her voice is locked in to something ethereal and timeless. There’s a rapturous pain in her vocal approach. It breaks your heart in a joyful kind of way.
Her voice is like laying in a field and looking up at the blue sky and realizing that this life might be all the existence we’ll ever be granted. That thought is painful and exhilarating. That’s how I can best describe Griffin’s voice. It’s in the realm of Gillian Welch and Allison Krauss. But if you listen carefully to these three Americana Sirens, you’ll hear the nuances of their respective virtuosity. Each sings in a different color of pain and joy.
On American Kid, Griffin lands firmly on the kind of pain that speaks to my frequency.
Enough of this loosy-goosy talk on human suffering — let’s get to the specifics of American Kid.
First thing that sticks out on American Kid is the production. It’s one part T-Bone Burnett and another part Patty Griffin. I love that she didn’t make this album with T-Bone. Not because I have anything against T-Bone — that guy has made some of the most beautiful music ever — but T-Bone brings such a specific sound to his projects. Griffin co-produced the album with Craig Ross, and the two find a way to align the sound of American Kid with Burnett’s sound without being a stale imitation. The spare sound has space for the vocals to breath, melodic lead lines, and dynamics that keep the acoustic album from being a snoozer. A+ on production.
The songwriting on American Kid is top-shelf. Lyrically, Griffin eschews the cliches that come with writing songs in the old-timey, American songwriting tradition. Griffin doesn’t lean on her euphoric voice to hide thin writing. The words and the vocal performance soar together. Griffin sings, “It’s a lonely highway / Sometimes a heart can turn to dust / Get whittled down to nothing / Broken down and crushed.” Her pain-filled voice wraps around these lines and drives them deep inside you.
I cannot write about Patty Griffin without discussing the rock god elephant in the room: Robert Plant. It’s been rumored for years now that Griffin and Plant are an item. Griffin is part of Plant’s Band of Joy. I’ve heard of Robert Plant sightings at our Portland, Maine Whole Foods. Selfishly, I’ve been hoping to run into Plant and Griffin in the organic grass-fed beef aisle, so we three can become fast friends. It hasn’t happened yet. I’ll keep you posted.
When I caught wind that Griffin had a new studio album, I was so hoping that Plant would sing on some of the tracks. Since 2007’s Raising Sands, it’s been a pleasure to watch the post-Zeppelin Plant reinvent himself in the American Appalachian tradition. He’s done it well. On American Kid, Plant gives us some of what we want — we get a touch of his voice without him taking the limelight from Griffin. Listen to “Highway Song.” The duet offers surprising harmonies. Two of the greatest voices on this lonely planet tap into something important here.
I have a good friend who worked with Patty Griffin at Governors in Bangor, Maine back when she was in high school. He describes Griffin back then as meek. Barely speaking. Avoiding eye contact. He explains that it was an enormous surprise when he first heard her sing. On American Kid, that once meek girl from Maine boldly sings her way to the top of Nashville’s good side while giving voice to our ever-present human suffering.
(Click to listen through Spotify. Do it!)