“Ambulance drivers and grave diggers/Mislaid fortunes grown bigger and bigger/Polar ice caps below and above/Conquered and claimed and ruined for love,” Patty Griffin’s porous, earthy alto quiver ripples as “You Never Asked Me” spins to its climax. “As we glide along all the bends of time/Falling for little tricks of the mind/With memories of Eden so far behind/And the taste of melting snow…”
The gently kneaded piano falls away, and echoes of Randy Newman, early Tom Waits, a hushed drift of Rickie Lee Jones remain as Griffin weighs love’s illusions and the price people will pay to hold it. As a few scattered notes tumble and the song circles back to its first verse, Servant of Love’s clear-eyed central theme is laid bare.
Just as it seems as though regret stains the dozen songs and a final breath-catching pause becomes heavy as wet velvet, a few bright mandolin chords rise from the silence,strumming like sunlight. The tension eases, and Griffin emerges with her knowledge as firmly in hand as the transformation. “Shine A Different Way” embraces life lived as a source of power, a lifter of souls and yes, an agent that makes us better—especially in loss—if we will let it.
Servant of Love—Griffin’s first new work since both 2013’s reflective American Kid and Silver Bell (recorded in 2000 but released 13 years after the fact)—takes the Maine-born songwriter to more complex, yet spare musical planes. “Snake Charmer” suggests her brazen sensuality, and “There Isn’t One Way” evokes Downtown Church’s Southern gospel, but it’s on the drone- and kalimba-driven “Good and Gone,” her raw Celtic exorcism, and the howling saunter of “Hurt A Little While,” the melting blues confession, that a new depth to Griffin’s work is evident.
Fingers of piano reach into the silence on the muted opening title track, as a voice echoes back on itself suggesting the unseen starkness in love’s realm. By the time Ephraim Owens’ trumpet bleets as a haunted presence, Griffith’s inner Nina Simone emerges: the arrangement carries emotion as the vocal turns her inside out.
Like John Prine and Jason Isbell, Griffin has built a career mining revelations from unseen lives’ unremarkable moments. Here, she offers acceptance with “Made of the Sun,” encourages another with the swaggering “There Isn’t One Way,” remembers love’s hope on “250,000 Miles” and in the lurching, foreboding “Everything’s Changed” feels inevitability.
What could be devastating, a new take on Joni Mitchell’s Blue, empowers rather than mourns. Truth is told; but for the pain, there’s also the truth that says, “It’s worth it.” To live, to love, to be transformed.