Sunday, May 19, 2013

American Triumph

If justice were to prevail, Patty Griffin would be a household name in the world of music, and her 2002 masterpiece "1000 Kisses" would be discussed in the same breath as American classics like "The Band," "Blood on the Tracks," and "Nebraska."  In the world in which we live in, as Paul McCartney might say, the story is a little different.  I've no idea how many records she sells - I could be wrong, but I doubt her albums go platinum -  but over the last decade Griffin has comfortably occupied and even solidified a notable position in the Americana genre, admired and even loved by devoted fans but residing just outside the periphery of mainstream stardom.  At this juncture, she's probably better known by many as being the current companion of Robert Plant, with whom she has toured and recorded, filling quite adequately the niche established by Alison Krauss on her album with Plant, "Raising Sand."

Since "1000 Kisses," Griffin has not been terribly prolific - two studio LPs that were good but didn't come close to approaching the greatness of her 2002 triumph, a live recording, and "Downtown Church," a compelling but unusual and somewhat inconsistent concept album incorporating old folk and gospel songs with just a couple of Griffin originals.

That all changes with "American Kid."  It is without question a great album; just how great it is will be determined with time.  It's too early to tell, but I suspect there will come a day when Griffin fans engage in strong but good-natured arguments over whether "1000 Kisses" or "American Kid" is the artist's best - the way that devoted fans to this day discuss if not argue about the relative merits of "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver."

The songs on the new album were inspired by Griffin's father, but they tell a universal story about a man - a kid, really - who goes to war and comes home profoundly changed by the experience.  It is a testament to the album's strength that many of these songs could be talking about veterans in any American war - from the Civil War on down to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The sites may have changed, but the stories remain the same.  Consider these lyrics, from "Not a Bad Man":

I bet you see a stranger
When you look at me
When I look in the mirror
I know that's what I see
I just want a little sleep now
Sleep as silent as the snow
But I am not a bad man
I just wanted you to know

Or these, from "Faithful Son":

Oh, my God
I cry in fear
Afraid you have forgotten me here
Afraid you have forgotten one
Your quiet, dull and faithful son
Who's seen the loneliest of days
And fought the dirtiest of ways
With the main inside
Who would have run away
From the promises I made

The musical approach of the album hearkens back to Griffin's 2002 triumph - for the most part, guitar, bass and percussion, with the occasional banjo or mandolin thrown in for good measure.  And there is also a chilling beauty in many of the songs, particularly two ("Ohio," and "Highway Song") on which the aforementioned Plant sings harmony vocals.

It was too much to ask of Griffin that she replicate the success of "1000 Kisses" on every one of her recordings.  That she has been able to do it at all is reason for jubilation and celebration.  

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