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Patty Griffin’s Americana folk has been a staple in American music since the early ‘90s after being discovered while playing her way through Boston coffee houses. Throughout her extensive discography, Griffin has explored a variety of sounds, from acoustic and stripped-down to more rock and roll and then back again. Despite the shifts in sound, Griffin’s songwriting has remained unwaveringly superb, and that statement holds true today. Griffin’s most recent release, her seventh studio LP, American Kid, is back to basics, although “basic” is an insult to the record—don’t be fooled by the humble packaging of American Kid. The quiet, acoustic nature of the album cradles an intensely personal narrative where Griffin’s story thrives, focusing mainly on her late father, who passed several years ago.
The grieving process is painstakingly documented on American Kid, the first album that Griffin has released since his death—particularly on tracks like “Irish Boy,” a piano ballad where Griffin writes about her father’s youth.
American Kid is easily the grittiest, most open Griffin has been with her audiences, yet is still strikingly careful in its execution. Her approach to wearing her heart on her sleeve is atypical of most musicians; rather than screaming her emotions into the microphone, demanding, “This is how I feel and you should feel it, too, damn it,” Griffin takes a step back, allowing her music to breathe, to adopt a certain haunting subtly that will, undoubtedly, resonate with rapt listeners.
The first single from American Kid, “Ohio,” is an eerie, stark ballad that is propelled forward by dark, ominous guitars, along with the harmonizing between Griffin and her beau, Robert Plant. Plant’s voice is unrecognizable, taking a backseat to Griffin’s (as it should, considering the personal nature of her work; this is her story to tell) as she sings, “If the hounds are howling/And you cannot hide/My friend, I will meet you on the other side.” The song sounds like being outside: like a hot, sticky evening in the South, sitting in the tall-grass sometime around twilight, when the creeping darkness starts to cast a foreboding shadow onto things that were beautiful only hours before. It’s a masterful marriage of lyricism and music that few are able to pull off, but Griffin nails it.
“Highway Song” comes across in the same vein as “Ohio” as it also heavily features harmonizing and also has an unusual, sleepy demeanor. It’s a song that’s both hopeful and hopeless as the lyrics change from, “I don’t wait for the return,” to “I will wait for your return.”
Not all of the album is rooted in ethereal in the way that “Ohio” is, though. The opening track, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go,” and “Faithful Son,” the sixth track on the album, veer back into familiar territory. Griffin’s vocals sound the best they ever have on these tracks, which are more classic American folk/singer-songwriter. “Go Wherever You Wanna Go” weaves the story of the joy of attaining freedom, perhaps in regards to her father’s soul after death, while “Faithful Son” focuses on the fear and loneliness that come with growing old.
“Wild Old Dog” is the only misstep on the album. Out of place amongst the other lyrics, this song sounds more country than anything as Griffin sings, “God is a wild old dog/Someone left out on the highway/I seen him runnin’ by me/He don’t belong to no one now.”
American Kid ends on a gut-wrenching, melancholy note with “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone,” which is where subtly almost fails Griffin, although she is able to retain simplicity in the dreamy, acoustic track. The most overtly death-oriented song on the album, it’s an interesting choice to serve as the closing of American Kid, but nonetheless, the grit and emotion in Griffin’s voice is arresting.
There may be countless folk-singers trying to write about the same subjects (loss, suffering, etc.), there’s no one out there who can write a song like Patty Griffin. American Kid is a cohesive, quiet-and-powerful effort, one of the most haunting but enchanting releases of Griffin’s career.