Patty Griffin may not be a household name, but she is one of America’s finest and most prolific singer-songwriters. Griffin is an award-winning musician whose songs have been sung by an impressive array of artists, including Dixie Chicks, Miranda Lambert, Jessica Simpson, Allison Crowe, Joan Baez, and Kelly Clarkson. Last month Patty Griffin released her tenth record, Servant of Love, and it’s one of the best albums of 2015.
Before jumping into the musical and lyrical content of Servant of Love, I first want to contemplate the packaging of the record itself, because traditionally artists have spent a great deal of time and thought on the design of the vessel which contains their record or disc, something we’ve lost in the digital age.
To compare the actual appearance of the Servant of Love album cover to the cover of a Roman Missal isn’t a stretch. The base color of the album casing is a bold but slightly worn red, and the script is a shiny gold with an interwoven sunburst in the center, framed by an even more intricate but subtler gold border. I’m not suggesting that Griffin wanted her record to look like a Roman Missal; I’m just saying that it does. But I will say this: whether it’s intentional or not, a major theme on Servant of Love is the Paschal Mystery – death turning into life, sadness turning into joy, darkness turning into light. And when you open the CD case itself, you’ll see it plain as day. There are four panels that make up the inside of the album casing, and the first three are dark – a table with a tea setting, a staircase, and another picture of the table and tea setting from a distance. The fourth panel, however, is a dazzling bright picture of Griffin wearing what looks like an albino peacock headdress, her hands raised in the orans position, her face shining like the sun, reminiscent of the Transfiguration. If you can keep the album artwork of Servant of Love in mind when listening to the record, it can be the hermeneutic key for unlocking the mystery of Griffin’s new album.
The opening track of Servant of Love is also the title track. When Rolling Stone asked Griffin what the song was about, she said, “I’m still figuring that out.” She said the same thing when I saw her with a brother priest at the State Theatre of Ithaca a couple of weeks ago. At that, my priest friend leaned over and whispered, “That’s her disclaimer.” And I think he’s right. “Servant of Love” is a slow, instrumentally sparse, emotionally heavy cry of the human heart. Griffin sings, “I want to live/ Long to live by your ocean/ Moved by the waves/ No one can see/ Flying close to the ground/ And held by your silent/ Words from the deep/ Calling to me.” Griffin may say that she’s still figuring out the meaning of the song, but I have a hard time thinking that it’s not a prayer. She could be a servant to anything or to anyone, but she chooses to serve love, or at least her character does. Either way I think Griffin knows more than she’s letting on.
The next two songs on the album address the timely topic of gun violence. “Gunpowder” is bluesy shuffle, peppered with an accenting trumpet from beginning to end, while the lyrics point to a culture that is at once repulsed and enthralled by the same thing: “A little powder from the gun/ Everything and everyone/ Shooting doves out of the sky/ I just like to I don’t know why.” The next track “Good and Gone” was inspired by the death of John Crawford III who was shot by police at a Wal-Mart in 2014. It’s lyrically indicting, while kalimba and drones provide a sonic haunt.
Remember the album artwork – the paschal mystery? Here it is. If the second and third tracks on Servant of Love are dark and tragic, Griffin offers hope on the fourth track. With “Hurt A Little While” Griffin doesn’t ignore the pain, or the sadness, or the sorrow, but she does offer hope: “I might cry a little while/ Cry a little while/ I might cry a little longer than a little while/ But one of these days I’m gonna laugh again/ One of these days I’m gonna laugh.” Patty Griffin is naturally melancholic, and she’s written songs like this one before (e.g. “When It Don’t Come Easy” and “Crying Over”), but somehow on “Hurt A Little While” Griffin knows she’ll smile again because she already has.
Patty Griffin is a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, and one of the things that she does just as well as Springsteen is write in character. Griffin has said that “250,000 Miles” is “about immigrants and displacement” and that she wrote the song after reading about immigrants from Nepal working on skyscrapers in Dubai. But the song itself is written from the perspective of a mother who is worried sick about her daughter who has left home: “Oh where is the daughter that I carried/ Gone to where the fears of men obey.”
In a sense, Servant of Love is a lot like Springsteen’s Nebraksa. I remember buying Nebraksa when I was eight or nine years old, and I didn’t like it, because I didn’t get it. I missed the big sounds of “Rosalita” and “Bad Lands” and “Out in the Street”. However once I got to college and listened as an adult, Nebraska soon became my favorite record. Servant of Love may be Griffin’s most stripped down record since her debut album Living With Ghosts, but it’s also her most mature. It’s music for grown-ups.
My favorite track on the whole record is “Made in the Sun”, which is a song about Griffin’s mother. When I saw her in Ithaca she introduced the song by saying that a friend had challenged her to write a “happy” song, so she wrote a song about childhood memories of her mom: “When the world was only you and me and your warm arms/ I’d look for you, you were the favorite one/ Your yesterdays poured into my tomorrows/ And the songs you sang/ Were made of the sun.” Griffin’s voice opens up on this track, and it’s appropriate, as she’s giving back the gift that her mother gave to her.
“Everything’s Changed” and “Rider of Days” both remind the listener that life can be a constant series of change and flux, but on “There Isn’t One Way” the tempo picks up and Griffin offers some good counsel on how to navigate such a world: “You wanna have a little style?/ Keep the kindness in your heart/ Let it be the voice you hear/ Hear it whisper in your ear.” Griffin closes the song with a litany of gratitude: “Be thankful for the sun/ Be thankful for the blues/ For the gold in your ears/ For the holes in your shoes.” Saint Ignatius of Loyola says that gratitude is the foundation for relationship with God.
Things slow down again on “Noble Ground” and Griffin humbly admits that she’s far from perfect: “I can fool myself like any fool can do/ Forgetting which ones are glass or jewels/ Nights of shattered pearls and rules/ And no one without blame.” It’s a fallen world and an ever-changing world, but Griffin testifies that she’s encountered “The beauty that endures”, and she grounds herself in it.
I freely admit that “Snake Charmer” is a bit of an enigma to me, but knowing that Griffin was raised in a good Catholic home, she’s plenty familiar with the Biblical images of snakes. If the snake in this song is the Evil One, Griffin is able to recognize it right away for what it is: “Yeah I’m seeing all the signs/ First all the little humiliations/ And then you were reassigned.” It’s an echo of Ignatius’ discernment of spirits.
The last two tracks of Servant of Love are classic Patty Griffin, both in sound and substance. “You Never Asked Me” is a piano driven ode to that same Love that Griffin sang about on the opening track. While pop music tends celebrate the heat of the moment, infatuation, and lust, the fifty-one year old singer-songwriter shares some real wisdom as she testifies, “I don’t believe in love like that anyway/ The kind that comes along once and just saves the day/ I think of it more like the rocks the waves chip away/ As they become the sand.”
If the first song on Servant of Love is a prayer, so too is the last one. “Shine A Different Way” is a Franciscan-style canticle, replete with rain, hail, sun, moon, and wind, all embodied with a Marian posture – “my arms stretched out before me”. Perhaps it’s that same posture in which Griffin is pictured within the album artwork. And maybe all the references of “shining” throughout Servant of Love culminate on this final track and point us to the front of the album cover, with the sun at dead center. Maybe.
By now you may be thinking to yourself, “Father, I think you’re stretching this one a bit – seeing things that aren’t actually there. Patty Griffin is a good songwriter and all, but she’s not as Catholic as you’d like her to be.” But know this, Griffin’s dad spent some time discerning religious life in a Benedictine monastery before marrying her mom, and Patty has six older siblings.
It’s true, I don’t know what Patty Griffin does on Sundays, but I do know this: once a Catholic, always a Catholic. And even if she’s not practicing her faith, she’s still writing about it. Like Springsteen, she can’t help but write about it – it’s in her blood and bones. And for that, I am grateful.
So if you’re looking for a great pop album this year with catchy hooks and slick synthesizers, then download Ryn Weaver’s “The Fool” and you won’t be disappointed. But if you want to listen to grown-up music by a seasoned singer-songwriter who knows a thing or two about heartbreak and healing, suffering and joy, death and life, then pick up Servant of Love. And listen without distraction.