Patty Griffin recorded her eponymously titled tenth studio album at her Austin residence. This gives the baker’s dozen tracks a homey feel. Griffin writes and sings in an intimate voice whether she croons about her mother, a waitress working for tips, a starving Irish immigrant or the current state of the world. She personifies her messages and observes instead of preaches. Perhaps that is why she named her record after herself. After all this time, she understands the personae she chooses are simply parts of her multitudinous self.
Griffin is an artist of the heart and mind. Her songs inspire deep feelings and deep thoughts. They can be poetically pensive and attentively detailed in creative ways that suggest something more than what the words just say through the way she expresses herself. Her voice is a secret weapon that superficially seems conversational before turning inward. She offers interior monologues disguised as everyday speech.
The record’s sparse instrumentation (the album was produced by Griffin and her longtime musical partner Craig Ross) enhances the personal nature of the project. It doesn’t matter if these songs are literally autobiographical or clearly fictional. She sings them as if they were factual. There’s a Lone Star saying that goes something like, “It doesn’t matter if I am right, as long as I know I am true”. This Texas denizen follows that motto. Relatedly, it’s not unusual for Griffin to begin her narratives in the middle of a situation as if one already knows what’s going on. The baker’s dozen tunes showcase her ability to tease out the meaning out of wistful impressions as the specifics of a situation unravels.
Consider the haunting “Had a Good Reason”. It’s just Griffin’s voice and guitar as she tells a tale about a deserted daughter who misses her mother. There’s just a smidge of self-pity as the singer searches for meaning. It’ll bring a tear to your eye, but one that’s easy to wipe away as the main character isn’t asking for your consolation. She just wants to understand her plight. One would think this would be Griffin singing about herself, but the album also contains the meditative “Mama’s Worried” about a mother whose husband and who cares too much about her children. Both tales can’t be true, yet the material is sung and played with an open-hearted sentimentality. Presumably, neither is realistic in the actually happened sense, but they are both authentic.
Robert Plant joins Griffin on vocals on “Coins”, in which a waitress recalls working for the tips of men aspiring for power. Over a Spanish guitar lead, the narrator sings about the disparity of wealth between the haves and have nots. She proffers the perspective of one who has acknowledged the injustices she cannot change without accepting the situation. The same is true for “Boys of Tralee”, who know hunger and harsh factory work, but do not agree with the judgment of others about their worth. The narrator takes pride in surviving and tells his tale to bear witness for others to recognize and admit.
The importance of memory comes out most vividly in the gentle and quiet “What I Remember”. Griffin softly croons, “Everything is just a dream / A string of memories and steam / And disappearing days / Life is a foreign land / Impossible to understand.” Recollection is a flight of fancy, as impracticable as it is unachievable. Whether Griffin finds her inspiration in the actual or in fabricated facts doesn’t matter as much as long as she is being true. The music her suggests they are in the highest possible sense.