When Patty Griffin sings “I’m no kid / In a kid’s game,” in her new song, “I Don’t Ever Give Up,” it’s not clear exactly what game she’s referencing. It could be romance, her career or another pursuit, but she’s not spelling it out, and the song is better for it. Because at 42, Griffin is past the age where most anyone chases anything with youthful enthusiasm and obsessive abandon—especially in America, where marketing and movies tell us that love, entertainment and career-climbing are best left to the young.
But as Griffin makes clear, she’s not going to stop living, dreaming or hoping just because of a few wrinkles and gray hairs. “I’m not clean / I’m not washed up,” she sings, her voice growing more impassioned as the music climbs to a crashing crescendo. “In this dream / I don’t ever give up.”
That idea—seeking transcendence despite failures and obstacles—serves as the primary theme of Children Running Through, Griffin’s fifth studio album and most spellbinding work yet in a career that’s been consistently strong.
“It’s something I think about a lot—‘How do we keep going?’ ” Griffin says, speaking by phone from her home in Austin. “These are really dark times. Nuclear bombs, genocides, global warming—you name it. I know people have always faced hard times. But even my parents—my dad is 83; my mom is in her 70s—are both scared about what’s going to happen to us.”
She pauses, seeming to will herself from going deeper down this path. As she stops, her dog barks lustily and, from the sound, seems to be running back and forth from Griffin to the front of the house and back. The singer laughs in a joyful, spontaneous burst.
“You know, you have to see the beauty still,” she says. “There’s a lot of beauty. There’s a lot of powerful things to experience, a lot of special things. You have to bring it down to that. And you have to get that, and to focus on what matters to you. How do you want to live your life? How do you want to keep going? I keep coming back to that.”
Her songs do the same thing: they acknowledge life’s difficulties, yet latch onto what brings us help and joy. Griffin doesn’t write story-songs so much as emotional experiences that mix memories with metaphors, and the real with the surreal, to create heady, heart-opening songs that pulse with feeling. Her voice serves that purpose perfectly as her alto sweeps from husky, whispered intimacy to a sky-shattering power that evokes freedom and majesty.
“What I try to do is not to miss those moments of beauty when they’re in front of me,” she says. Then her dog barks, and she laughs again. “Like that right there.”
Thematically, Children Running Through alternates from scenes of Griffin’s past with those in the present, with occasional departures into allegorical, dream-like songs, such as the jazzy “Stay on the Ride.” Inspired by a Rumi poem, it follows an old man on a stray bus ride who philosophizes about life and following one’s own journey, set to a horn-driven honker with room for Griffin to show off her Aretha-like wail.
More typical, though, is “Trapeze,” a duet with Emmylou Harris that takes a childhood memory of attending the circus and builds it into a story of a female trapeze artist. The overlying message suggests we have to take risks to fully live, even if it means we all have to fall sometimes.
“Burgundy Shoes” also involves a bus trip, this one with a female relative—her mother, maybe, or a grandmother. Set to an impressionistic piano arrangement, it alters between detailed descriptions of a little girl’s cute ensemble and the way she experiences the world around her. Typical to Griffin’s experimental style, the song features a one-word chorus, “sun,” which Griffin repeats with the pressing urgency of a bright-lit morning.
In the present, she excoriates an ex-lover in the ferocious “Getting Ready,” an idea she previously visited in one of her most beautiful and well-known songs, “Let Him Fly.” Only this time, she sends him out the door with a groin kick instead of a tender nudge, as she beats out the rhythm on her acoustic guitar, the strings sounding like they’re made of barbed wire.
“Heavenly Day,” on the other hand, is that acknowledgement of beauty that she mentions, as she sings with gospel openness about a peaceful moment when nature and a friend’s smile work their magic.
“I wrote that one day when I was home and messing around in the garden and in my yard,” she says. “The weather was beautiful, and my dog was rolling on her back in the grass. It was heavenly.”
A former Nashville resident, Griffin utilizes several Music City musicians, including full-time band member Doug Lancio on guitar, Glenn Worf on bass, Jim Hoke on sax and harmonica and John Mark Painter on horns and string arrangements. She also brings in former Faces member Ian McLagan on grand piano and Michael Longoria on drums, with J.D. Foster supplanting Worf on bass for several songs. Together, the band matches Griffin’s unconventional lyrics with exploratory arrangements that never settle for typical singer-songwriter strum.
Working with Austin producer (and former Nashville resident) Mike McCarthy, who has produced the rock bands Spoon and …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Griffin balances rock, gospel and soul, switching from intimate to rousing arrangements that continually delight.
Even on her 1996 debut, Living With Ghosts, which features just her voice and guitar, Griffin has constantly fought the limitations of being an acoustic-based singer-songwriter. Children Running Through taps more of a gospel vein with forays into R&B and jazz, and these rhythms—and the openness of the arrangements—give her voice more room to soar. As both a lyricist and a vocalist, she takes full advantage of that additional space.At the end of “Trapeze,” after acknowledging that, sooner or later, “the old girl is going down,” Griffin suddenly shouts in wordless harmony, then repeats, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” Lyrically, there’s no reason for the exultation. But emotionally, and within context of what Griffin brings to her music, it’s the perfect exclamation point.
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