“We’ll pass around the easy lie of absolutely no regrets”
— The Weakerthans
There comes a time in life when things left to do become things undone, when regret settles in, and the flavor of that regret is seasoned by every stinking thing you did, didn’t do, wanted to do, and had done to you or for you throughout the course of your life. Some folks have more regret than others, but even the grandest and most frantic life-as-work-of-art existence has at least a little bit hiding away somewhere. And it’s such an intensely personal thing; how can an artist even hope to tap into it in a way that means something to even a few of us, much less some way with universal appeal?
Patty Griffin‘s one of the rare ones who’s able to pull it off, who sounds like she’s drilling straight to those widespread, unspoken truths that we all recognize when we let our guards down. It’s not just the clarity of her voice, which at its most urgent sounds like it’s flowing unfiltered straight from the soul. It’s not her guitar playing, which retains an urgency even in its most delicate acoustic moments. And while her songwriting, which is pretty much flawless, plays a really big part of it, poetry alone isn’t enough. No, it’s all of those things together, along with some X-factor secret ingredient, that make Patty Griffin one of those artists who makes your vocabulary just shut down at the futility of properly describing her talents.
OK, so it’s apparent by now that this writer’s a fan, but even I was unprepared for Impossible Dream. It’s not enough to say that this is Griffin’s best album (which it is), because in the moments when the record is at its most impossibly beautiful, it transcends anything you can say about it. Impossible Dream reaches the heights it does because it completely ignores the conscious part of your brain and goes straight for the internal switch that lets you know when a song is speaking directly to you.
The “weakest” tracks on Impossible Dream seem that way only because the record achieves so much on its best cuts. The burbly, upbeat “Love Throw a Line”, the dark traditional balladry of “Cold as it Gets”, and the plaintive piano musings of “Kite”, for example, could possibly dominate another Griffin record. Here, though, they act almost as momentary reprieves from the record’s emotional tides.
Ironically, three of Impossible Dream‘s best songs come from Silver Bell, a record that never saw official release (and which still has several excellent songs that deserve to see the light of day). In each case, Griffin makes subtle improvements. The confessional spirituality of “Standing” grows from feeling like a nice experiment to feeling like Impossible Dream‘s emotional lynchpin, the song that ties the joy to the sorrow. “Top of the World” becomes a little more spare, a little more haunting. As a message of missed opportunities from one loved one to another after death, it’s absolutely heartbreaking (anyone who thought the Dixie Chicks did justice to this song really should hear Griffin’s stark rendition). “Mother of God” progresses from childhood memories, to Florida where the narrator is “waiting on old people waiting to die / I waited on them until I was”, to old age where she lives too far from the ocean, and is just getting “older and odd”.
“Mother of God”, as perfect as it already is, gains even more poignancy by acting as a counterpoint to the newer song that precedes it, “Florida”, with its imagery of “young girls… singing their heads off… driving with their eyes closed… in their bare feet / Cigarettes smoking”. When the line about them “wishing and hoping” comes around, it’s impossible to hear it without leavening the youthful optimism with more than a few pinches of sadness. Most of us, after all, know what comes of unbridled, youthful optimism — tales like “Mother of God”.
“Mother of God” doesn’t close the album, but its coda sums up everything that’s come before. “Maybe it’s alright”, Griffin sings, a moment of comfort for the song’s narrator, but also perhaps as a comfort for all the stories that have come before. As for the album’s true closer, the affirming “Icicles”, it offers the following homespun wisdom: “We just want a little bit / Of sun for ourselves / And a little bit of rain / To make it all grow”. Sounds like as good a philosophy as any for dealing with life’s daily dose of regret and memory.