Silver Bell is an object lesson in how radically and thoroughly the music industry has changed in the 21st century. Coming off two very critically acclaimed yet commercially unspectacular albums, Patty Griffin recorded her third album in 1999 at Daniel Lanois’ New Orleans studio, with the understanding that A&M Records would release it just as it had released her 1996 debut, Living with Ghosts, and her 1998 follow-up, Flaming Red. However, the label had recently been purchased by Universal Music, which shuffled the imprints and upended the hierarchy. A&M canceled the release and shelved the album indefinitely.
Griffin took it in stride: She finagled her way out of her contract, signed to ATO Records, recorded a string of excellent albums, won a Grammy, toured (and shacked up) with Robert Plant, and currently reigns as the uncrowned queen of the roots rock movement. During that time she re-recorded a few of those Silver Bell songs, but the album persisted as a bootleg passed around between her devoted fans. Among them: the Dixie Chicks. The trio covered “Truth #2” on their 2002 album Home, and Natalie Maines tackled the title track on her solo debut, Mother, earlier this year. As Maines told Billboard recently, “Now I can’t steal from it anymore—it’s like my own personal treasure chest of Patty Griffin gold.”
Thirteen years later, Silver Bell is finally getting an official release—from Universal, no less. The conglomerate was purchased by Vivendi in 2004, but it still owns A&M, which has been combined with Octone Records to form a mutant two-headed monster label. As the need for flow charts has increased, album sales have decreased precipitously. Mid-level artists who were once considered bad investments now qualify as success stories, and Griffin in particular has outlasted almost all of her ‘90s peers. It’s taken nearly a decade and a half, but her old label now recognizes her as a viable artist.
This is not by accident, of course. In addition to touring almost constantly, Griffin has refined her songwriting chops over the years and has proved an adventurous, even fearless musician. She has worked with the North Mississippi All Stars, Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris and gospel stars Ann and Regina McCrary. She has developed an expansive definition of Americana that transcends folk and country to include rock, R&B, soul, gospel and blues. Those various strains dovetailed on 2013’s American Kid, arguably her best and darkest album to date.
In other words, Silver Bell offers a new point from which to measure just how far Griffin has come since 2000, both creatively and commercially. The album is, admirably, all over the place. Opener “Little God” simmers at a low, ominous boil, and you can practically smell the smoke as the title character ashes his cigarette. “Perfect White Girls” is even harsher, yet its flatulent guitar can’t quite shed all of its ‘90s alt-rock associations. Counterbalancing that relatively aggro sound are acoustic tunes like “Truth #2” and “Top of the World,” which sound prescient now that we know how her career takes shape.
Silver Bell is generally best when it’s quietest, when Griffin’s vocals don’t have to compete with a denser sound. On “Sooner or Later” she could be backed by an ace R&B outfit ca. ’72; with a sharp guitar keeping time and a low organ setting a dusky mood, it’s the kind of slow jam that prizes ambience and leaves the details up to your dirty mind. “So Long” is an old-time benediction, an apt closer that could have appeared on American Kid. Griffin is mostly confident in her musical breadth, although songs like “Driving” and “Sorry and Sad” sound strained removed from their original context.
Still, it’s obvious she had something to prove in 1999, and in a recent interview with the Boston Globe, she has said that the new executives at A&M, including Jimmy Iovine, had little faith in her ability to craft a solid and sellable album. Who knows if Silver Bell would have changed their minds? It’s no revelation in 2013; in fact, every subsequent album has improved upon it. Instead, this delayed release is an artifact from an era when the industry was only beginning to stumble and when Griffin had not quite reached her stride.