Patty Griffin (Thirty Tigers/Cooking Vinyl)
Throughout this album there are images of rivers and seas and oceans: as indomitable and vast, as unreadable and timeless, as dividers and unifiers, as physical and metaphorical elements.
Most of all, those images represent the women - of several generations, of several parts of the world, of several emotional/physical/financial circumstances – who people Patty Griffin’s songs. Always though, they’re women who go on. Women who have always gone on.
As she sings in River, “Takes an army just to bend her/Be careful where you stand her/You can't hold her back for long/The river is just too strong/She’s a river.”
In the telling of these songs, songs which emerged after a debilitating bout of cancer and, a few years earlier, the end of her relationship with Robert Plant who wanted to move back from her home of Texas to his home in England, Griffin never makes it about her. That’s never been her way.
Her way instead is to bring empathy and sympathy – but never really pity – to her characters who may not always have much agency in their outer life but retain their inner lives vividly. And that includes men, or at least the perspective of men, as in the Celtic tale Boys From Tralee, which kicks its heels up on little more than defiance, guitar and what might be bodhran.
She sings these tales in musical styles that swing from folk (American, Irish and British) and Sinatra-esque ballads (What I Remember could easily have appeared on one of his late ‘50s mood pieces), to barren skies country and New Orleans jazz, stopping along the way at backporch bayou, Spanish guitar and – in the quietly reeling-in Luminous Places - the kind of contemplative piano ballad that would appeal to one of her early supporters, Emmylou Harris.
As wonderful as her singing is, as comforting and intimate and timeless as it is, just as importantly, after 10 albums Griffin’s songwriting is both at ease with form and restless for exploration. Which may even be analogous to some of the lives described. In any case, as one of the modern greats of songwriting, she writes with precision in whatever style it lands, the stories given room.
The woman in the perilous situation of a volatile and dangerous domestic partner in Bluebeard (the literary analogy hardy accidental; the vigorous conversation between acoustic guitars more than appropriate) recognises the arguments put before her by this brutish man: he has a burden to bear, he wants her to see him as he presents, not what he may have done before.
When curiosity wins over caution, that he will punish her is inevitable. “But the man with his intentions stated/Found he'd underestimated/The forces of the sea and the sand.” And so, in the ambiguous ending, she may be cut, she may be desperately hurt, but there will be no more of the threats. In more ways than one, she is “maiden no more.”
There is no revenge in Coins (where she’s joined, in almost ghostly backing, by Robert Plant) as a waitress recalls serving a man now bone dry with an indifference that borders on misanthropy, who back then was a minor figure already puffed up with importance.
“I thought I was rid of you once/For a couple of coins on the table/Forgetting when you left that day/You were young and angry and able.”
But in its slow unwinding within a spare, repeating musical setting, the song separates vengeance from disdain (“Now history is on your side/Who am I to deny it?”) and becomes unsparing: “And a chill came on a beam of sun/Natural as a cancer/Bow down to the lord and son/To the man with all the answers.”
He may fly higher, he may crash and burn, it doesn’t really matter. But she, she will go on. “Keeps coming home, arms open wide/Ever-changing and undefined/She's a river.”