Patty Griffin has always been an idiosyncratic artist who pursued her own visions whether that took her back to wistful childhood memories or rocking out hard or proclaiming her faith. Her best recordings seemed to be offerings to a personal muse rather than a crafted version of what an album was supposed to be. Her latest disc, Servant of Love may be her tenth but it is the first one she has released on her own imprint (in conjunction with Thirty Tigers). She is now free to record what she wants. The results are astonishing.
At first, the music does not seem to be much different than what she has made before. That’s due in good part to her distinctive voice. She spits out the lyrics like squibbles that snake along the staff, going in and out of the instrumentation for emphasis. The results make her seem plain spoken—Griffin just says what’s on her mind—and subtle: she purposely lets the music cover up some of her more intimate thoughts and spiritual longings. The Texan (by way of Maine) artist understands the power of understatement without ever sounding meek. If you have heard her before, you know it’s her before the first line has finished.
But the music is different here. She sings the blues, croons the drone, earnestly freak folks, jazzes it up, gossips the gospel, and offers a contemporary country rock style that defies easy categorization. Sometimes, you realize it is just her raw voice and a guitar pleading for salvation, as on “Hurt a Little While”. The next song may involve a sophisticated multilayering of several voices and instruments that are deliberately out of sync with each other, as on “250,000 Miles”. It’s not third-world as much as it is out-of-this-world, despite the Eastern incantations.
While Griffin knows “There’s More Than One Way” to do things, she values kindness and self-reliance. These two elements form the core of the baker’s dozen tunes here. She preaches this sermon no matter what musical style she invokes. Be true to yourself. Be kind to others. Life is hard. That may seem a light message but it also suggests the murky times in which we live where knowing right from wrong is not simple or easy. So when Griffin bitterly wails, “I just want to make some sense”, we feel the pain of her confusion. The muted trumpet of Ephraim Owens behind her just emphasizes her loneliness as she expresses the virtue of sharing the planet with her audience. We are all alone together. The earth is sacred ground. We may have heard it all before but Griffin reminds us of its essential truth.
Griffin is 50 years old. She has come out of a musical and personal relationship with Led Zep’s Robert Plant. One can find echoes of these concerns in her lyrics, and they may or may not be true. “I don’t believe in love like that anyway / The kind that comes along once and just stays”, she sings on “You Never Asked Me”, the most nakedly emotional song on the record. But I don’t believe her. As she sings on the title tune, she’s just a “Servant of Love”. This quiet five-minute dirge suggests she wants to be carried away by love as if by waves on an ocean. Again, Owens’s trumpet nicely conveys the blue mood. Maybe love doesn’t last, but Griffin cannot help but want to drown. Except in this case, she is the mermaid calling.