BOTTOM LINE Tackling issues big and small with her poignant, well-crafted alt-country
The turning point of Patty Griffin’s tenth album comes in the middle, in the haunting, tension-filled “What Now,” where she asks of the sea, while Robert Plant provides background howls: “Where to? What next? What now?”
Before that song, “Patty Griffin” (PGM Recordings/Thirty Tigers) focuses on intensely personal matters, as the narrator of “Mama’s Worried” sings of the emotional toll that economic hardship takes on a family, while “River” uses the powerful imagery of nature to explain the dynamics of a relationship.
After that song, Griffin steers the album toward broader topics, where she examines how we can try to move forward together in a world that currently seems to thrive on people tearing each other apart. In “Coins,” Griffin talks about how some men use money to dominate women who are intellectually superior to them. In “Boys from Tralee,” she tells a harrowing tale of immigration over a Celtic arrangement, connecting the current immigration debate to the experiences of previous generations of immigrants. And in “What I Remember” she uses a gorgeous acoustic ballad to tell a stunning story that reveals itself to be from a sexual assault survivor.
She is even more direct in the bluesy “The Wheel,” where Griffin draws parallels between trying to fight the rain and trying to fight racism, as she tells the story of Eric Garner, who died on Staten Island in 2014 after police put him in a chokehold.
Griffin has always been one of the best singer-songwriters around, with her work covered by everyone from the Dixie Chicks to Kelly Clarkson. (Her brilliant new ballad “Just the Same” should be a hit – if not for her, then someone else.) Since her diagnosis with breast cancer two years ago and undergoing treatment, Griffin has said she sees the world differently. The result is one of the best albums of the year. And with “Patty Griffin,” we all benefit from her recovery.